Mich. U-Verse Complaint Nixed

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The Michigan Public Service Commission has rejected a formal complaint by a local programming producers trade group regarding the way AT&T Inc.'s U-verse Internet Protocol video service intends to deliver local programming.

The utility regulators said the state's chapter of the Alliance for Community Media filed its petition for declaratory relief too early. Also, if there is a violation of state rules on the delivery of public, educational and government channels, the Alliance is not the appropriate party to complain about the telco's activities.

Judy Palneu, media and public relations specialist for the MPSC, clarified that individual producers or a local community could make such a complaint to the utility regulators. Those complainants would need to prove they were harmed by AT&T's actions.

The Alliance chapter filed its complaint on Aug. 14, noting that AT&T is delivering service in its first two Michigan communities. The state's uniform franchising law, approved Dec. 21, 2006, mandates that new providers launch PEG channels 90 days after a request to do so by communities. That triggered a PEG launch date of Aug. 21, so the alliance's complaint was filed in anticipation of a breach.

The Alliance's filings throw light on producers' concerns that AT&T's version of PEG delivery will relegate such programming to a “digital desert” and that the telco will discriminate in its treatment PEG programming compared to satellite and broadcast signals.

Regulators rarely compel competitive providers to completely duplicate the PEG support efforts of incumbent providers, arguing that such efforts are redundant. New providers are asked to support and deliver PEG programming in a manner substantially similar to the original video providers.

The complaint alleges there is an “AT&T PEG Solution” that will place all the state's PEG programming on one channel, Ch. 99. Producers argue this will substantially diminish viewership for local programming.

Potential viewers, according to the complaint, will have to find the channel, and then scroll through a list of all the communities providing programming. Once they pick a program source, they then have to choose public, educational or government content from and scroll through another list to find the target program. That seven-step process is different from the one click necessary to dial up a cable or broadcast channel.

The complaint also asserts that PEG programming will stream on U-verse at 1 Megabyte per second. That is about one quarter of the bandwidth required for a standard definition broadcast signal, according to the complaint.

AT&T responded that the Alliance complaint is based on hypotheticals with no proof of the degraded transmissions the trade group alleges. The company successfully argued that the Alliance is not a “franchise entity” and is not the proper party to file a complaint. Also, no injury has occurred for which the group can recover.

Joe Steele, a Michigan media director for AT&T, said no PEG programming is currently available on U-verse, because no communities are ready to deliver that content in an IP format. He added that AT&T continues to work with communities to prepare to delivery locally produced programming.

Jon Kreucher, attorney for the Alliance chapter, said that preparation requires a $15,000 investment per community in equipment to prepare PEG programming for streaming via the Internet. That is another area where content providers are treated differently, he asserts; AT&T converts its other programming into IP format.

The Alliance complaint was originally filed as a request for declaratory relief, for which there only need be an interested party to file and no finding of injury in fact. The PSC used its discretion to re-classify it as a contested case, Kreucher said, a legal distinction that eliminated the trade group as a potential complainant.

Refiling under the names of individual producers is under consideration, the attorney said, but there are “lingering jurisdictional questions” to consider.

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