Local public access channels can intervene in Comcast suit

Afederal judge has ruled that Vermont’s public-access cable channels have a big stake in the outcome of Comcast’s suit against the state of Vermont, and can intervene in it.
Judge Geoffrey Crawford, sitting in the U.S. District Court in Rutland, ruled last week that the public access “stations depend on networks maintained by cable operators like Comcast to reach their viewers. Any change in the conditions under which Comcast must carry their programming affects them greatly.”
The ruling means that Vermont Access Network, a consortium of 25 regional organizations running more than 65 public-access channels in the state, can stay involved in a lawsuit between Comcast and the Vermont Public Utility Commission.
The commission, then called the Public Service Board, ruled 13 months ago in favor of allowing Comcast a permit to continue operating its cable television systems in the state for the next 11 years. But the permit came with conditions. Regulators said:
• Comcast must build 550 miles of line extensions to reach Vermonters who currently don’t have access to cable television.
• The company must not only carry public access channels, but within one year it must list the programs being shown on each channel in its digital television guide.
• Comcast must provide connections for live programming events, such as selectboard meetings, when the location is within 500 feet of a network connection point.
• It must participate in a new regulatory proceeding that will determine whether the company has to carry public access channels in high definition, or HD.
The company objected, first asking the board for reconsideration and, when that failed, Comcast filed suit against the state in federal court.
One complaint by Comcast was that the state was violating its First Amendment rights, interfering in its role as a content provider by imposing line extension and other costs. The state called its requirements “content-neutral.”
Several of the conditions imposed by regulators on Comcast appear to have a direct bearing on the operations of the public access cable stations, and that’s why they asked for the authority to become a party in the case. Intervenor status enables the public access groups to call witnesses, submit evidence and file an appeal if they get and adverse ruling.
Comcast had argued that the Vermont Access Network should be allowed “friend-of-the-court” status, allowing them to offer information to the court, but leaving them with less clout in the case.
“Comcast did not object to Vermont Access Network’s (VAN) participation in the federal appeal as a “friend of the court,” which would have enabled VAN to present its interests as part of the case. Comcast respects the decision of the Court,” company spokeswoman Kristen Roberts said in an email.
Lisa Byer, VAN’s public policy chair and executive director of the Bennington-area access station called CAT-TV, said the public access stations’ top goal among the list of conditions listed by state regulators was to get their programming listed on the digital guide of programs that appears on the television screens of Comcast subscribers.
Comcast did not want to provide this service in Vermont, even though it does in other parts of the country, Byer said.
The access channels also have pushed for high-definition television and for the ability to transmit programming from a broader range of venues.
In his ruling, Crawford said VAN’s request to intervene in the lawsuit was supported by the fact that it had been a full and active party when the case was before state regulators.
The judge noted that “in another legal proceeding concerning the same subject matter the tribunal (the then-Public Service Board) recognized VAN’s substantial interest.” He added that under federal civil court rules, “VAN had a recognized ‘claim,’ or position in the … case.”

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