Cable providers have always had a monopoly in this region. And with only one game in town, they have a stranglehold on vital cable, phone and internet services. When the internet goes out, channel offerings change or prices go up, there's little consumers can do but grin and bear it.
Incredibly, the Federal Communications Commission last week handed these Goliaths another victory, voting 3-2 to allow the cable giants to keep some of the money they are supposed to be funneling to local municipalities and their cable access television stations. The payments are made in exchange for the companies' use of public property for their wires and cables. The cable companies pass on the cost by charging subscribers a "franchise fee" on their monthly bills.
Under the new rule passed by the FCC, cable providers can now count "in-kind services" toward what they owe local communities. Such services include discounts for seniors and fiber-optic networks that link government buildings.
That means two things: Cable companies will see their profits increase, and local community access television stations will see their budgets slashed.
"The FCC is basically changing the law that has stood for 40 years," said Walt Kosmowski, executive director of Beverly Community Access Media, or BevCam.
BevCam's $500,000 yearly budget comes from the franchise fees paid by Comcast. Losing a significant portion of that money could mean losing vital community programming and silencing local voices.
"Anything would be significant, Christopher DiMercuro-Sicuranza, a contractor with Gloucester's Studio 1623, formerly Cape Ann TV. "And access television, I believe, is critical to communication within a community."
Along with community newspapers, cable access stations give voice to "regular" citizens from across the region, producing dozens of locally conceived and produced public interest programs, airing countless city and town government meetings and covering everything from Fourth of July parades to Thanksgiving football.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the move would free cash for the cable companies to expand broadband access to under-served communities. The cable companies, however, have made no such promise.
"Comb through the text of this decision," said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who voted against Pai's plan. "You will not find a single commitment made to providing more broadband service in remote communities. There is no enforceable obligation to expand broadband capacity. There is no agreement that any savings from today's action is pushed into new network development. I fear this absence speaks volumes."
In short: Don't expect the cable giants to plow the savings from the fee cuts back into infrastructure, or lower prices for customers.
So what can be done?
A good first step would be to somehow break the stranglehold of large cable providers. Most cities and towns are served by a single provider, which makes it difficult to negotiate things like access fees.
There is, however, hope on that front, as some communities open the door to cable competition. For example Peabody officials, after years of trying, are close to finalizing a deal with RCN to be the city's second cable, internet and phone service provider.
"While Peabody residents are bombarded daily with slick advertisements for services like Verizon's FiOS, Comcast remained the only game in town," city officials said in a statement announcing the deal. Now, that has changed, and the city may be able to negotiate more favorable terms in future contracts with Comcast.
Meanwhile, there is a move afoot on Beacon Hill to tap into streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. State Rep. Paul McMurtry, a Dedham Democrat, has proposed leveling a 5% fee on those services, with part of the revenue going to community access television stations. Almost 90 legislators -- Democrats and Republicans -- have already signed on to the proposal.
"This makes sense," said state Rep. Jim Kelcourse, an Amesbury Republican. "These centers have state-of-the-art equipment and they are really a great way to keep people engaged. I think it is important that we continue to provide public, educational and government access TV and there was a lot for support for this."
McMurtry's proposal won't lower the cost of Netflix for users, just as added competition won't guarantee lower prices for viewers. But both could serve as a lifeline for community access television. And at least customers would know a portion of their monthly bill is being invested in their community.