Lauren-Glenn Davitian
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Terry  Grunwald
Cary Williams
Lauren-Glenn Davitian
Seongcheol Kim
Dirk Koning
Sue Buske
Autumn Labbe-Renault
Pierre Clark
Fred I. Williams
Kara Harris

Visions and Organizing in Vermont: What Do We Want? Access Lauren-Glenn Davitian is executive director of CCTV in Burlington, VT, whose projects include Channel 17/Town Meeting TV, CyberSkills and the Old North End Community/Technology Center.
Lauren-Glenn Davitian

For more than 25 years, community activists have been working to liberate cable television, video equipment, computers and phone lines for public use. Public, educational and government access (PEG) channels exist in more than 2000 communities across the United States. Community computer centers, civic networks and public technology initiatives dot the rural and urban landscapes across the globe. While the 1990's herald a new era of cable and telephone consolidation, community media/technology activists have not been far behind. We have been engaged in our own forms of digital convergence: forging strong collaborations, staking a claim for federal funds, shaping foundation priorities, and building a base of local support throughout the global digital economy.

As media activists in Vermont we pride ourselves on our manageable size and pro-consumer culture. Since 1984, we have established 23 community access channels in the state's largest and smallest communities. In the process, we have been able to gain strong support from Vermont regulators who view public, educational and government access as mainstays of cabled communities. Despite the fact that cable subscribers are charged (in their bills) for the operation of PEG channels, the allocation of public, educational and government channel space is viewed by state regulators as compensation for the cable operator's use of the public rights-of-way.

In our state and many others, it became clear that the cable and phone companies were taking advantage of the deregulated marketplace and quickly getting into each other's business. We could see, and it has been proven, that de-regulation would result in less consumer protection and more de facto monopolies. In an effort to ensure community access to all forms of telecommunications in Vermont, Chittenden Community TV (CCTV) public access advocates and producers located in Vermont's largest county proposed a model of locally available public telecommunications facilities to be funded through a state-wide universal service fund. It was a new concept for the new decade, and regulators and legislators could not yet imagine what such facilities would achieve. It became clear that we would have to demonstrate this concept in order to have any long-term impact on state-level telecommunications policy.

Our demonstration, the Old North End Community/Technology Center is modeled on the tradition of Playing to Win, civic networks and CyberSkills. More than a public access facility, the Tech Center has worked, since 1995, as an engine of economic and community development. As we anticipated, in 1996 the Vermont Telecommunication Plan adopted our model as an important example of access and capacity building for the Information Age. The Plan discusses electronic community and cites PEG access and expanding use of the Internet as foundations of Vermont's electronic community. By legitimizing community access and new forms of electronic community, the Plan moves our collective work into state level policy discussions that point us to the next chapter of building a democratic information society in Vermont.

The next chapter of community access to digital technologies is playing itself out in the re-franchising of Vermont's largest cable operator, Adelphia Cable Communications. After a series of recent acquisitions, Adelphia accounts for 90% of Vermont's 140,000 cable subscribers and is now the fourth largest cable company in the country (with five million subscribers). The company's annual report touts them as a provider of bundled telecommunications services. In the past several years, they have built their own telephone company (Hyperion), bought the Buffalo Sabres, merged with a number of smaller cable companies and added a variety of digital services to their cable offerings. It is these services -- digital tv, high-speed Internet service, paging services and long distance services -- that account for a 35% increase in revenue during the last quarter of 1998. Multi-channel news reports the one year growth in their digital service revenue (video and Internet) to be 127%!

In the midst of this tremendous expansion in services and revenue growth, Adelphia continues to utilize the public rights-of-way of Vermont. They plan to increase channel capacity, interconnect their Vermont systems into a statewide network and expand high-speed Internet services to everyone. Because the company is asking for an eleven-year contract renewal, Vermont access advocates are arguing for a larger public piece of the commercial pie. Using regulatory precedents from Vermont, Ohio, California and Illinois, we are currently advocating for an expanded definition of public access. In recently filed testimony before the Vermont Public Serivce Board, we have requested additional bandwidth (rather than channel) capacity for a local and state-wide civic network that would provide statewide access channels for public video and data services. These services will range from state-wide legislative programming, educational programming (distance learning), to coverage of live public events. It is our position that once Adelphia uses the cable network to provide Internet services, they are obliged to provide free Internet drops and modems at specified public, educational and municipal locations.

As you might expect, Adelphia does not agree that expanded use of the public rights-of-way means expanded public access. In order to protect the public interest for Vermont (and for the rest of the country), Vermont PEG advocates will defend the public interest before the VT Public Service Board, provide evidence of the strong community support for PEG services, cite precedents for expanded definitions of public access around the nation and advocate for consumer protection in a rapidly deregulated, increasingly expensive and significantly less accessible telecommunications marketplace. Stay tuned.