Clark County and the city of Vancouver have each sent letters to the Federal Communications Commission objecting to a proposed rule change that they say will reduce the ability of local governments to regulate wireless facilities and deprive them of revenue.
Under federal law, cable providers enter into franchise agreements with local jurisdictions. The agreements allow cable companies to operate their networks in the public’s rights of way, and, in return, local governments receive franchise fees. Some agreements also require cable companies to provide “public, educational and government access” channels.
The proposed FCC rule would allow cable companies to deduct the value of these channels and other financial and nonfinancial community benefits they provide from the fees they pay to local jurisdictions.
Jim Demmon, video services manager for the city of Vancouver, said that there are five of these channels in Clark County that include three educational channels, as well as two run by CVTV, that focus on local government. He didn’t have a figure for how much the FCC’s rule could cost the city of Vancouver because it hasn’t calculated the amount of nonfinancial benefits provided to the city under the franchise agreement.
According to a 2015-2016 report from the city-county Telecommunications Commission, Comcast paid more than $14.2 million between 1998 and 2017 to a fund that supports local public, educational and government access channels. Comcast, the county’s main provider, also gave $3 million annually in cash and in-kind contributions to more than 100 local community organizations in 2015 and 2016.
Comments submitted to the FCC by Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee on Tuesday state that the county annually receives approximately $2 million in cable franchise fees and $92,000 in grants for public, educational and government access channels.
“The cable franchise fees are a significant source of fee revenue for the county’s general fund,” wrote Henessee. “Implementation of this rule will have three significant negative impacts on Clark County: first is the loss of revenue to the county’s general fund, which provides a multitude of critical county services. Second is the loss of the PEG funds that are used to provide public access channels that are an important educational resource for our community.”
A letter submitted by Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes earlier this month raised similar issues. He wrote that the rule could result in a significant reduction in cable franchise fees depending on how the value of public, educational and government access channels is calculated. Programming offered on these channels would be “severely limited, if not altogether eliminated in some or most jurisdictions” he wrote.
Both Holmes and Henessee raised concerns about another provision in the FCC rule that would also prohibit local jurisdictions from regulating noncable services, such as internet access service offered over a cable system. Holmes’ letter raised concern about how local governments could lose their authority to manage “small cells,” low-powered nodes used to provide wireless service.
He wrote that cable companies could install small wireless facilities with limited public input or aesthetic requirements. He wrote that the rule could mean cable companies could “use local rights of way for any purpose, regardless of the terms of the franchise, and avoid having to pay fair compensation to the local government for the use of publicly funded assets in the rights of way.”
Henessee wrote in his letter that “Clark County has concerns regarding the public safety and livability issues that may arise related to cable companies deploying wireless facilities or other non-cable facilities without local oversight.”
Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, is looking into the matter and requested information on options to better preserve local funding and control said her spokeswoman Angeline Riesterer in an email.