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Council seeks to ease cable viewers’ conversion to digital channels

Monday, August 30, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

The city took a small but significant step into the future Thursday. City Council voted to approve a resolution directing the city manager to take steps to protect Time Warner Cable subscribers’ continued access to Austin Public, Education and Government (PEG) channels as that provider makes the switch from analog to digital service.


Time Warner Cable has announced that on October 1, the seven Austin PEG channels will no longer be provided to its subscribers in the current analog format. Subscribers who want to continue watching these channels on analog televisions will have to obtain digital converters.


The Federal Cable Act of 1984 mandates that cable video operators provide channels on their networks for local PEG programming.


Under the terms of the resolution, the city manager is directed to take appropriate steps to protect subscribers’ access to the PEG channels “without any additional cost to the subscribers or any Austin PEG channel administrator.”


A newer version of the resolution was drafted during the course of Thursday’s meeting, adding a section to clarify and expand the city manager’s mandate. That section reads: “The City Manager is further directed to ensure any switch to digital PEG channel programming will be a smooth transition for current analog subscribers; this may include working with other entities on public outreach campaigns to raise awareness of an impending change in services for those subscribers and prepare them to make the switch.”


This new language didn’t please Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who admitted that he would be voting “no” in what would most likely be a losing campaign. “I think the language is still very vague,” he said. “‘The City Manager is directed to take appropriate steps’ — I’m not sure that that’s cost-controlling language. And, in addition, under ‘further resolved’: ‘To ensure any switch to digital will be a smooth transition for current analog subscribers’ — I’m not sure what that means; I’m not sure anybody else knows what that means. It’s subject to broad interpretation.


“Especially in view of the fact that Time Warner has offered to provide free of charge a box which will enable this conversion to any subscriber that needs it and the fact that the digital transition is scheduled to be completed, and this will be a moot question, by October 1, 2012 — I understand that could be extended. Based on all those facts together, in my opinion it’s imprudent to go ahead with this resolution.”


Just as he predicted, Leffingwell was in the minority on the dais. Speaking in support of the resolution, Council Member Laura Morrison said that she wants the city manager to engage in dialogue with Time Warner to see if there might be a way to avoid forcing customers to get digital converters — free or not — claiming it would be an “imposition for folks.” 


Council Member Sheryl Cole had more specific requests for the city manager. She asked that that the city conduct public service announcements about the conversion and that the city manager’s office meet with Time Warner to discuss “ways they would be willing to support us in this effort to educate the public on the switch to digital.”


“I think that this issue of the switch will affect all of Austin but will in particular affect particular segments of Austin that are most vulnerable,” Cole said.


In the end, Council Member Randi Shade said, the importance of the resolution, vague though it may be, is that it raises public awareness of a significant and inevitable change. “We’re trying to make it as easy on those analog customers as possible,” she said. “This is something that is happening nationally as the world goes from analog to digital. Time Warner is trying to do the best they can in this marketplace.


“Clearly for those people that rely on this as their means for community involvement, it’s important that the city do as much as we can to make that service available. Just passing the resolution raises the awareness of that fact.”


Council voted 6-1 in favor of the resolution, with Leffingwell the only dissenting voice.

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