This is a guest post, authored by Jay April. Jay is a strong supporter of local authority and community media. He is a documentary filmmaker, video journalist, and new media innovator who now happens to find himself running a community TV and radio station in Maui, Hawaii.
There is a new land grab in Hawaii whereby the government is giving away valuable public land to private business without getting anything in return for the people. Sound familiar? It has happened before in Hawaii – with agriculture, with beaches, with water and now, with the public airwaves. This time the difference is that the land in question is in the form of public electronic real estate, the electromagnetic spectrum. These are the frequencies you pay for to watch cable TV, use the internet or talk on the phone.
Most people don’t know this, but in exchange for using public rights of way – airwaves, telephone poles, electric wires and underground conduits – cable monopolies like Oceanic Time Warner have to pay “rent” in the form of community access channels like Olelo on Oahu, Akaku on Maui, Na Leo on Big Island and Hoike on Kauai. Now, because of new technology, the frequencies or space these channels occupy have suddenly become extremely profitable to cable companies. (Not unlike how lands once granted to indigenous people by treaty became more valuable once minerals were discovered.) That is why Time Warner wants to take over this public property and move these channels to inferior locations while vastly reducing the amount of non-commercial electronic real estate. That is why, if you are an Oceanic Time Warner Cable subscriber, channels are disappearing from your channel line-up altogether, or re-appearing someplace else. So far, instead of holding your land in public trust, the state is falling for the Time Warner plan – hook, line and sinker.
Maybe that is not such a bad thing after all. Oceanic says this techy move will free up more space on the cable for them to bring us all kinds of goodies like High Definition (HD) channels, video on demand channels, enhanced services and the holy grail of faster, better and more affordable internet for all. That’s a good thing, right? We all want to believe. We really do. The thing Time Warner forgot to mention was…well…the several new adult services that have recently appeared as a result of moving your access channels to cable no man’s land.
On Wednesday, April 4, the naked truth behind this land grab was revealed at the State of Hawaii Cable Advisory Committee hearing in Oahu. The members, made up of appointees from each county, did not like what they saw. Let’s just call it, Oceanic Time Warner’s dirty little secret.
The meeting started out innocently enough. Director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA) Keali’i Lopez, announced that she was inclined to grant a “waiver” Oceanic Time Warner had requested, to strike the definition of the word “channel” from contracts that govern cable operations on neighbor islands. This little change would allow the cable company to legitimize “after the fact” a contract violation it had already committed months ago, when it moved educational access channels from their current analog location (55 and 56) to an area on the cable dial, commonly referred to as “digital Siberia” (355 and 356)
This action allowed Time Warner to reclaim twelve megahertz (12MHz) of dedicated non-commercial spectrum for unrestricted commercial development. Former two-digit, full service, publicly owned, analog channels disappeared and were replaced by three-digit “digital channels” in hard to find locations. Replacement digital channels represent a tiny fraction – perhaps 10% or less – of their former electronic land value and are viewable only by subscribers who obtain special equipment.
In defense of DCCA Director Lopez, her motivations were perhaps well meaning, even altruistic. Who doesn’t want faster, better, affordable internet? Time Warner broadband speeds on neighbor islands are truly pa-thet-ic. Last time we checked on Maui, they were about 5 megabits down and less than 1 megabit up. Public testimony at the CAC hearing revealed, however, that even though a huge amount of dedicated public spectrum was taken away in December and in January, cable subscribers on Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Big Island and Kauai did not get faster, better, more affordable internet. What they got was a rate hike, a slew of expensive digital channels, and a big fat bunch of additional adult services like Playboy Interactive, Playboy TV on Demand, Penthouse on Demand, Hustler on Demand and Manhandler on Demand.
Putting the Porn Warner switcheroo aside, it was also revealed during public testimony that DCCA has no guarantee or quid pro quo from Time Warner to ensure that any of us will ever get faster, ubiquitous, more affordable broadband. On the contrary, Wall Street analysts at Sanford Bernstein are reporting that Time Warner has recently announced that they will be applying overcharging schemes to broadband customers, charging all customers usage fees to boost revenues and profits. The street predicts that these charges will become the rule and not the exception in the near future.
After these and many other unsavory facts were revealed, several CAC members questioned the character of Oceanic Time Warner, a company that protects all local broadcast channels on analog and repeats them over again on digital; protects Oceanic owned channels such as OC 16 and dozens of non-local channels like QVC, MTV and Shop NBC by keeping them on analog – yet finds it necessary to kick your local Community Access Channels off these more profitable and desirable locations in order to steal the public’s bandwidth.
No one disputes that someday all channels will be digital. How that transition occurs and what happens to public electronic real estate in the process is an important discussion to have with cable subscribers and cable access providers on each island. Before the state gives it all away, we have a right to say how our land will be used.
To its credit, for the time being, the Cable Advisory Committee has taken a stand against the DCCA waiver of the definition of channel pending further review. It remains to be seen which is more obscene – the Time Warner lie itself or the state’s willingness to
believe it at the expense of neighbor island Public Access channels and Community Broadband development.