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By City Councilmember Nick Licata. With assistance from my LA Frank Video.
Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.
The City Council’s Energy and Technology Committee is considering proposed legislation related to the Comcast cable franchise renewal. Councilmember Jean Godden is the chair, I am the vice-chair, and David J. Della is a member of this committee, which focuses on Seattle City Light, energy rates and energy sources, information technology, cable and broadband telecommunications, Seattle Public Access Network (SCAN) and citizen technology literacy and access.
Comcast’s franchise with the City expired last year. Until a new franchise is approved, the conditions of the expired agreement remain in force.
Three bills and one resolution are presently being considered by the Committee.
C.B. 115494 authorizes the Mayor to sign the franchise agreement and the ArtsZone arts programming agreement.
C.B. 115493 accepts funding, makes appropriations, and creates staff positions for the Seattle Channel to produce ArtsZone programming.
C.B. 115492 increases the cable franchise fee charged to Comcast and makes appropriations for SCAN operations.
To view these bills, visit: http://www.seattle.gov/council/issues/cable.htm.
A separate resolution would express the Council’s intent that the Department of Information Technology include in its contract with SCAN certain conditions, which are listed in items 1 through 3 under “THE COUNCL’S PROPOSAL” below.
Comcast is the largest of the two cable operators holding franchise agreements with the City of Seattle. Comcast and the City’s other cable provider, Millennium Digital Media, serve approximately 190,000 Seattle subscribers with cable television, telephone services and high-speed Internet service. Comcast service is available in most of Seattle except for the Central Area Franchise District and parts of Downtown. Millennium serves the Central Area Franchise District and parts of the Downtown, Capitol Hill and Queen Anne neighborhoods.
Cable operators are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Local jurisdictions are extremely limited in setting cable rates and cannot dictate what channels a cable operator must provide. You can learn about how the FCC regulates cable channel availability by visiting http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cablechannels.html. To learn how they regulate cable rates, visit http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cablerates.html.
The City is also prohibited from requiring Comcast to provide operating funds for public access, use union labor, or agree to franchise obligations related to Internet or telephone service.
The Mayor’s Proposal
The Mayor is proposing a new ten-year franchise agreement with Comcast. It includes the following key elements:
1. Raising Comcast’s franchise fee paid to the City from the current 3.5% to 4% in order to continue funding SCAN. SCAN’s annual budget has been $660,000. The Mayor’s proposal would provide $500,000 each year.
2. A one-time payment from Comcast of $4,125,000 to fund ArtsZone, a new arts programming project for the Seattle Channel.
3. A $2,000,000 capital grant, $500,000 of which goes to SCAN, the rest to the Seattle Channel. Comcast has also agreed to donate to SCAN the building currently housing them.
4. A $15,000 grant for computers or technical support for the City’s community technology centers
5. Continued discounts for low-income customers, including low-income seniors, low-income people with disabilities, and residents of subsidized housing.
To learn more about SCAN, visit them at http://www.scantv.org/.
ArtsZone proposes to produce new programming focused exclusively on arts and culture topics. These programs would be cablecast on the Seattle Channel in three 4-hour blocks each week, Thursday through Saturday evenings, between 8 and 12 midnight. If it so happened that an official City government public meeting or hearing were to be scheduled during that time, it would take precedence over ArtsZone.
The Council’s Proposal
After hearing from hundreds of constituents concerned over SCAN and ArtsZone funding, I proposed that Committee chair Jean Godden and I co-sponsor legislation that changes certain elements of the Mayor’s proposal. Councilmembers Sally Clark and David J. Della are also co-sponsors. These proposed changes would:
1. Raise Comcast’s franchise fee paid to the City from the current 3.5% to 4.2% in order to fully fund SCAN at an average of $700,000 annually. SCAN would be required to hire a professional fund raiser and can receive a one-to-one match for every non-City dollar they raise. The increased cost to cable customers will be 35 cents a month (about 5 cents for each tenth of a percent of the franchise fee).
2. Before receiving City matching funds, require SCAN to develop within one year a professional business plan that is acceptable to the City’s Department of Information Technology.
3. Request DoIT to ask Comcast to provide a second public access channel for SCAN. SCAN’s programming has outgrown its single channel, requiring a lottery system to schedule programs.
Additionally, in response to expressed concerns over the possibility of ArtsZone programs displacing programs focused on government business, I asked the Seattle Channel’s Gary Gibson to consider involving the Citizens’ Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board and Seattle Arts Commission in providing his office guidance on Seattle Channel programming. He agreed and the Committee expressed its support of the idea.
To view the March 8th public hearing held in the Seattle Center’s Shaw Room, visit: www.seattlechannel.org/videos/video.asp?ID=2080608. To hear public comment presented during the Energy and Technology Committee’s meeting on April 12th, check out www.seattlechannel.org/videos/video.asp?ID=2080609.
At its April 12th meeting, the Council’s Energy and Technology Committee members discussed the Mayor’s Comcast franchise renewal proposal and related agreements. It agreed to further discuss and possibly vote on this legislation during its next meeting, on April 26th. Visit the Committee’s web site to see the agenda: http://www.seattle.gov/council/committees/Committee_Energ.htm.
There will be another opportunity for the public to comment on Comcast’s franchise renewal at the start of the Committee’s April 26th meeting. If the Committee votes to approve the legislation, it could go before the full Council for a vote as early as Tuesday, May 2nd.