A federal judge Monday issued an order blocking Comcast from requiring thousands of customers in Michigan to obtain a digital set-top box in order to view public, educational, governmental channels controlled by local governments.
Comcast had wanted to migrate the PEG channels from analog to digital to free up bandwidth to provide more HD programming and video-on-demand services. Analog-only customers would lose PEG access today (Jan. 15) if they failed to obtain digital set-tops.
Judge Victoria Roberts, of the U.S. District Court for Michigan’s Eastern District, concerned about the disruption of government-supplied information to analog-only viewers, decided to maintain the status quo in response to objections to Comcast's plan raised by local leaders in Dearborn and Meridian Township.
"While the court agrees there are some general benefits with digitizing channels, it finds the public interest is better served by the temporary preservation of the PEG channels in their analog format so the public may maintain access to vital information," Judge Roberts said in a 16-page opinion handed down just hours after a hearing in her Detroit courtroom.
Roberts issued a temporary restraining order, barring Comcast from moving the PEG channels from their current location or converting them to digital without the court's permission.
Under its new PEG carriage policy in Michigan, Comcast offered to provide one free set-top per home for the first year, after which normal leasing fees would apply. Monthly fees apply immediately for additional set-tops.
The additional set-tops cost -- up to $4.20 per box, per month -- caught the attention of House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who sent Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts a letter in December urging him to reconsider. Dingell's panel oversees the cable industry and its national regulator, the Federal Communications Commission.
Roberts indicated her ruling was a close call. The Michigan governments had put forward a few legal arguments that were unlikely to prevail at a later hearing, she noted. Roberts agreed, though, that Comcast's PEG-migration public notice was faulty and that the new set-top box cost burden on analog-only customers "may be unreasonable."
Comcast isn’t the only cable operator shifting PEG channels to digital to free up analog bandwidth. Bright House Networks has made a similar move in Florida. But Comcast, as the largest U.S. cable company is an industry bellwether. Prior to its recent transaction with Insight Communications, Comcast had 26.1 million subscribers, or 27% pay-TV market share under FCC rules.
Pressure had building on Comcast’s PEG moves for several weeks. The latest effort to influence Comcast's policy came Monday when Rep. Edward Markey (D.-Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, scheduled a Jan. 29 hearing called "PEG Services in the Digital TV Age."
On Monday, Dingell, Markey and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, put out a statement commending the court’s action and affirming the Jan. 29 hearing date, saying a witness list would come later but that government and cable officials would be included, as would PEG providers.
Dingell said in the release: “I commend the court’s decision to block Comcast’s plan to provide PEG channels in a digital format only. This proposal would have forced many Michigan consumers to pay additional fees to rent set-top boxes to receive the high-quality educational programming they are currently guaranteed with basic cable service. I commend the mayor of Dearborn, John O’Reilly, for his leadership on this issue. The Committee on Energy and Commerce will be examining this matter thoroughly in coming weeks.”
Stupak said: “I am concerned that cable consumers are encountering barriers to receiving their public, education and government access channels. PEG channels serve an essential role in local communities and I was pleased to see the court block an effort to make these channels available only to digital cable subscribers. As media consolidation continues to increase, PEG channels become even more vital in providing a much needed local voice and diversity of opinion. The committee must make it clear to cable companies that we are serious about protecting access to PEG channel programming.”
Markey said: “PEG services play an important role in promoting localism and diversity in national media policy. They provide vital and vibrant services in communities around the nation and foster civic access and involvement in the best traditions of our democracy.