Cable monopolies targeted - Litchfield

November 11, 2012

Cable monopolies targeted

Litchfield official pursues 'open video system' to end blackouts


Stephen Simonin is fed up with consumers being held hostage while their cable television companies arm-wrestle with programming providers over licensing fees.

Such battles often result in extended blackouts of favorite channels - such as the one between Cablevision and Tribune Co. that left much of Litchfield County without Fox network programming for more than two months before it ended last month.

Simonin is determined to do something about it. If approved by the state, his idea could potentially make it much easier for consumers to change their cable or video provider by ending the municipal monopolies cable companies now enjoy.

Simonin, chairman of the Cable Television Advisory Council in Litchfield, hopes to convince the state to use a provision in the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 to create a new operating franchise. Called an "open video system," it would require a cable TV operator in Connecticut to share its cables with competitors from adjacent communities, in exchange for receiving an "access fee."

Consumers could then choose programming from any provider that offers what they want.

Last month, Simonin presented this idea to the Statewide Video Advisory Council, made up of representatives of the state's local cable advisory councils. The SVAC, which convened Oct. 24 over dinner at Baci's Grill in Cromwell, debated the idea, and the voting members present approved a motion, 5-2, to send a formal request to the state legislature's Energy and Technology Committee to investigate its feasibility.

"This would be in the best interest of the people," Simonin said. "It would change the entire map."

AN ENGINEER, Simonin formerly worked for Cablevision, helping to design its network, he said. He joined the advisory council in Litchfield in 2002.

"When I left the industry I decided to help people, because the quality of the picture went down and the prices went up," he said.

Cable's switch from analog signals to digital adversely affected picture quality, he said, because the digital signals are compressed.

"We're no longer in an analog world," he said. "They only use about 20 percent of the bandwidth for TV." The rest is used for other services, such as telephone and data.

The ability to compress TV signals spawned the idea that there is room within the cable for programming from more than one provider.

"Now you'd be able to get Comcast, Cox, or Charter at your home," without each competitor having to build its own delivery system to your house, he said. Consumers might also be able to pick and choose among channels or services offered by the different cable providers, he said.

"But here's the magic: If cable companies have to share that cable and can only have TV on it, they can't have other business on it," he said. "So they'd have to put up another cable across the country, on their own nickel, for the other services." That, he said, would create jobs and boost the economy.

"The only industry that has money - a lot of money available - is the entertainment industry," which cable is a part of, he said.

Simonin contacted the Federal Communications Commission, asking what it would take to make this happen. He found that the framework is already in place.

According to an email Simonin received in June from Sima Chowdhury, an FCC attorney, the open video system platform was established in the 1996 act to "authorize local telephone companies and other entities to deliver video programming directly to subscribers." The commission has approved 120 such systems since 1996, Chowdhury said.

Nothing in the act prohibits cable companies from doing this, but the FCC doesn't have the power to require a company to operate that way, she said.

Undaunted, Simonin discussed the issue with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who said he is considering "legislative proposals to foster and promote competition" and to update and upgrade the 1996 law.

"This act was passed essentially in a different era of video programming and other similar services, and probably should be brought into the 21st Century," Blumenthal said. "At the same time, I can't predict with any confidence what steps can actually be accomplished in this Congress."

So Blumenthal advised Simonin "to explore state alternatives as well."

Simonin then contacted Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office. He received a response saying that such a change requires legislative action.

MANY OF THE 11 SVAC members present at the Oct. 24th meeting were intrigued by Simonin's motion to ask the legislature to establish open video systems. Some, however, raised questions.

Gregory G. Davis, of the Charter/Weston advisory council in Newtown, said he saw two key points. First, that the idea would restructure the cable industry in a way similar to the state's electric industry, which requires Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating to let competing power providers use their wires. And second, that while most consumers want the ability to choose channels "a la carte," it's still not practical.

"The customer wants that, but may not have the depth of knowledge of the cost behind delivery," he said.

Davis said restructuring cable like the electric industry isn't possible, because that industry "had only one set of wires. In video or data services, there are multiple points of entry to your house." Still, he voted to approve the motion.

Don Saltzman, of the Area Nine Cable Council in Westport, did not.

"If the government says you must share it, that's a taking," he said. "The state can't force a cable system to give up their property."

Ed Pizzella, of the council in Manchester, then asked whether Simonin's intent was to get the legislative committee to adopt the idea, or just to study it.

If the intent is just to study it, "how can there be an objection to it?" Pizzella asked. He then proposed amending the motion to clarify that point, which was approved unanimously.

Peter Sielman, of the Old Lyme advisory council and vice chairman of the SVAC, then offered some sage advice.

"All great journeys start with a single step," he said, citing a Chinese proverb. "We are saying to the legislature we want you to look at this. If it is able to happen, users will benefit. But if we don't stop and ask them to do this, they won't."

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