Rhode Island regulators last week were considering whether Cox Communications Inc. should provide free carriage to commercial entities on its leased-access channels.
That question came up when it was discovered that the Community College of Rhode Island — which is a for-profit entity — pays Cox for the right to offer its telecourses over the MSO's network of public, educational and governmental (PEG) access channels.
PEG access proponents believe CCRI shouldn't have to pay Cox for time on the PEG channels, even though students must pay for the courses to be telecast.
"It's disgraceful," said Bunny Riedel, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Community Media, a Washington D.C.-based PEG-access advocacy group. "This is the only place in the nation where an educational institution is charged for carriage on a public-access channel."
Cox officials respond that CCRI approached the MSO about buying time on the company's network in order to reduce the estimated $400,000-per-year cost of offering its courses over a local public-TV station.
Through Cox, CCRI could offer its telecourses to some 290,000 cable viewers while saving approximately $250,000 a year, said Cox vice president of government affairs John Wolf.
"They came to us about leased access," Wolf added. "And we would have been in violation of federal law if we didn't honor their request. They're saving a quarter of a million dollars a year. CCRI is delighted with the arrangement."
Supporters of a plan that would throw open Cox's leased-access channels to more than just nonprofit entities were not available for comment last week. But in an interview with Communications Daily, Michael Barr, a Providence-based provider of PEG programming, said granting Cox permission to charge CCRI for carriage would pave the way for other cable operators to collect fees for carrying public programming.
At the request of the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities & Carriers, the Rhode Island Attorney General's Office and Cox provided legal opinions on the matter. Predictably, Cox has backed its right to charge CCRI for access to its network.
"Basically, they believe that since it's a for-profit entity, than it's not true public access," said RIDPUC assistant administrator Eric Palazzo. "We're going to look into the situation and decide whether under the current rules there is anything to discuss."
The agency also plans to look at other states, and how they've handled similar situations, Palazzo said.
Riedel said offering college telecourses over a PEG access channel amounts to a public service, since the information transmitted is not delivered exclusively to students seeking a degree.
Instead, the courses are available to all cable viewers, some of whom continue to watch "even though they're not taking the course for credit," she added.
quoted Rhode Island Assistant Special Attorney General William Luekar as saying that early responses from other state's indicated that similar course were being delivered on local PEG access channels free of charge.