Support for Community Access Centers in the Statehouse

September 16, 2019

A Bill currently pending in the Massachusetts Statehouse would help support community access centers in Massachusetts, in addition to providing support to municipalities and the state’s general fund.

Representative Paul McMurtry filed a bill on behalf of MassAccess, the membership-based advocacy group representing over 130 community media organizations in Massachusetts. Local cable television channels, often called “PEG channels” to correspond with the mission of public, educational or government access, provide a valuable public service to the community. There are over 200 local access cable TV centers in Massachusetts, the highest concentration of media centers in the country.

An Act Relative to Digital Entertainment on Public Rights of Way (HD 4389) was filed by Representative Paul McMurtry to create parity among cable and digital streaming providers using public rights of way in order to sell their services to Massachusetts residents by establishing a 5% fee on digital streaming providers which are already using the rights of way, free of charge. The Bill, which has 74 Cosponsors, aims to update the law to include a fee for new entertainment options which have entered the marketplace in the past decade and are growing in popularity. These options include Netflix and Hulu, among others. The fees would generated would be distributed between the state general fund, municipalities and community media centers. Distribution would be based on population and done via existing methods in place.

Traditional cable, which is delivered through public rights of way, is regulated through franchise license agreements that provide a small percentage of revenue back to the city or town in which they do business in order to support local programming. Community media has thrived in Massachusetts, in part, due to franchise license agreements with cable companies.

New cable alternatives, while often delivered via the same public rights of way wires, are not subject to those same regulations. Digital streaming providers rely on local infrastructure to sell their product to millions of Massachusetts residents, yet pay nothing to use that infrastructure. This bill recognizes that companies which use public rights of way to sell services that are similar to traditional cable should be held to similar rules and regulations.

Most community media centers are seeing declining revenue from cable franchise fees for the first time in their histories. However, these centers are not the only ones being hurt by a decline in cable subscriptions. Many municipalities in Massachusetts receive a percentage of franchise fees in order to support other projects in their cities and towns. New entertainment options which have entered the marketplace in recent years continue to grow in popularity, and resulting in a decline of cable customers. From 2015-2018, state data shows that total cable households dropped by 7% in Massachusetts.

A number of states have already established fees for digital streaming services including Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Washington. Additionally, individual municipalities in California, Colorado and Illinois have also established fees for these providers.

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