Officials from Minnetonka, Richfield, Edina and Hopkins walked by enlarged, antique photographs from Eden Prairie’s farming era. The Schmidel Farm, a gathering at the Tuckey Grist Mill on Purgatory Creek and other images are handsomely mounted around the quiet of the atrium inside Eden Prairie City Center. They speak to the days when community news and chat arrived by horse-drawn wagon or was gleaned on Sundays after church.
The visitors and their Eden Prairie counterparts are members of the Southwest Suburban Cable Commission (SWSCC). They were headed to the low-profile panel’s October meeting. SWSCC is charged with making sense of and bringing regulatory order to its respective communities on matters related to cable television.
The joint powers commission “enforces” the franchise agreement with Comcast and oversees the commission’s Public, Education and Government channels. The “PEG” channels are branded as Southwest Community Television, “SWTV” for short. From its administrative and server hub in the City of Edina communications office, SWTV delivers its hyperlocal programming to Comcast. Comcast sends it on fiber-optic and coax cable to subscribers in Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Hopkins, Edina and Richfield.
Eden Prairie City Manager Rick Getschow and City Council Member Mark Freiberg welcomed their visiting colleagues. Typically, an elected city council member and a city manager from each town form the commission. The commission as a whole meets twice a year; its executive committee of city managers meets when needed.
The commission’s legal counsel, Brian Grogan of the Moss & Barnett firm, announced that Comcast had just launched high-definition (HD) versions of Southwest Television’s public and educational channels. They now share technical parity with SWTV’s government channels.
Eden Prairie Government Channel 813 (HD) features city council and planning commission meetings, informational shorts, League of Women Voter candidate forums and state-of-the-city and school district presentations.
Now, the handcrafted shows of local producers, organizations, artists, pastors, performers, politicians and gadflies also have a high-tech glow on SWTV Channel 799. Standard definition nostalgia types, if there are any, can still savor SWTV’s retro tube TV look on Channel 15.
Commission members were audibly pleased. Grogan thanked Comcast regional affairs manager Andrea Kajer for tending to the long-anticipated HD conversions.
Free public access to Bloomington TV studio renewed
The commission also authorized the renewal of its annual partnership with the City of Bloomington to use its Bloomington Community Access Television (BCAT) studio. Since 2013, anyone, even non-Comcast subscribers, who resides or holds a job in Eden Prairie, Edina, Minnetonka, Hopkins or Richfield can use a professional-grade studio, editing bays and camera, audio and light kits. SWTV even covers the costs for BCAT orientation and training workshops and video gear use.
Recommending the renewal, before the vote, Grogan said, “I say the same thing (every year): ‘This is the best deal in town. On a monthly basis, we couldn’t come close to this by renting a professional studio elsewhere.’” The annual cost: $16,000.
Earlier in the meeting, SWTV administrator Dan Carpenter noted that 12 active series carried by public channels 799 and 15 have been produced through SWTV itself; 15 more originate at other local access centers.
“Habitat Makers” premiered in mid-October. The beautifully photographed series features local native plant restoration projects. Minnetonka’s Jerrold Gershone and author and environmental educator Heather Holm power the show. Eden Prairie’s Marilynn Torkelson’s lush array of wildflowers, native plants and grasses is currently featured on SWTV Ch 799 Sundays through Wednesdays at 2:30 p.m. Marilynn and her husband, Tom, were honored with a 2016 Spirit of Eden Prairie Award for their rain garden.
The high-def, SWTV programs originating from Eden Prairie include:
- Victory Lutheran Church: Worship services.
- The Eden Prairie Lions Show: Community service group discussions and events.
- Eden Prairie Local News: Public service announcements pitching its 2022 Voter Guide and covering sports in 2023.
- Democratic Visions: A show focusing on political and media issues, featuring satire and video essays.
- Free Access TV News: A spirited, mostly rock-inspired magazine series with humorous and 1960s psychedelic takes on life. Broadcast on SWTV and CCX in Brooklyn Park.
SWTV provides a schedule on its website of its own hyperlocal programming as well as gaming, cooking, author, exercise, business, and kid-friendly craft shows from elsewhere.
Concern over House bill that impacts public cable TV access
Consideration of a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives consumed nearly a quarter of the commission’s hour-long meeting.
In describing the likely impact of the American Broadband Deployment Act of 2023 (H.R. 3557) on large and small cities nationwide, Brian Grogan referred to a letter sent to Congress by the United States Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA). In short, they claim that H.R. 3557 will “rip away” local authority to manage public rights-of-way and public lands in a “giveaway” to cable and telecommunication providers.
They argue that if H.R. 3557 becomes federal law it (1) would eliminate cable franchise renewals, thereby removing the ability of state or local communities like Eden Prairie to enforce franchise obligations such as the “build-out” of cable systems, customer service and PEG facilities, (2) would grant cable operators the unilateral right to terminate a franchise but with no obligation to remove its cable system from public rights-of-way and (3) would grant cable operators the right to provide non-cable services while prohibiting localities from imposing any fees on cable operators’ revenue from those non-cable services.
On Sept. 28, NATOA provided a more detailed perspective on its website.
And in October, the Alliance for Community Media (ACM), which supports PEG centers and access television nationwide, urged its members to oppose the American Broadband Deployment Act. ACM President Mike Wassenaar urged members to contact their federal lawmakers because H.R. 3557 “takes away rights from local communities, and undercuts how (PEG) stations can serve people who need vital local information.”
What does cable companies’ right-of-way access mean in Eden Prairie?
The American Broadband Deployment Act bill and a Nov. 20 Eden Prairie Local News article prompted a comparison between the installation and maintenance of high-speed fiber-optic cable to coaxial cable.
In the article, reporter Jim Bayer details Intrepid Fiber Networks’ project to connect about 25,000 Eden Prairie homes and businesses to a high-speed fiber-optic cable internet system. The Boulder, Colorado, company says it will take two to three years to complete. Other companies, says Eden Prairie City Engineer Carter Schulze, are expected to request city permits for their own fiber-optic systems. These networks will be leased to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast.
SWSCC legal counsel Brian Grogan responded to Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN) questions sent to him by email.
EPLN: During construction, does Intrepid pay the public right-of-way use fee?
GROGAN: The fees charged to Intrepid are the standard city right-of-way permit fees, which are a one-time fee of $80 per 100 feet of installation if it is a new facility being placed underground. The fee is reduced to $19 per 100 feet of installation if the facility is being placed in an existing conduit or attached to an existing overhead pole.
EPLN: Is that fee comparable to the use of right-of-way fee during construction? Does Intrepid pay the public-right-of-way use fee, say, for Comcast?
GROGAN: This right-of-way permit fee is charged to any company that works in the right-of-way. The franchise agreements with Comcast, Xcel Energy, Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative, and CenterPoint Energy waive this right-of-way permit fee since those companies are charged a franchise fee.
EPLN: Who pays the public right-of-way use fee after Intrepid begins leasing the high-speed fiber system to an Internet Service Provider(s)?
GROGAN: Internet (broadband) providers, unlike cable and video providers, do not need a franchise from the city to construct fiber in the city’s rights of way. In most cases, companies that provide only broadband service would obtain authority from the State Public Utilities Commission and then simply pull construction permits to address construction within a jurisdiction. In fact, there (is) no legal authority for the city to even mandate buildout or coverage of the entire city in the event a competitor did seek to construct broadband facilities in the city. Rather, the broadband company would have the legal right to elect where it chooses to install its facilities and which parts of the community it may elect to provide (or not provide) service to.
EPLN: When was the fee determined?
GROGAN: The right-of-way permit fee is approved annually by (the) city council along with all other city fees. Typically, these fees are designed to cover the city’s costs of verifying the company’s compliance with applicable city code obligations. These permit fees are different from franchise fees, particularly cable franchise fees, which are essentially a rental fee for the company’s use of the city’s right-of-way.
EPLN: What are its terms? How much revenue for the city?
GROGAN: It is difficult to estimate what Intrepid will pay in permit fees as they build out their system, but it will likely be several hundred thousand dollars if they intend to reach every residential property. It all depends on where they seek to build.
EPLN: Has the City of Eden Prairie and/or other SWSCC member cities responded to our congressional leaders regarding H.R. 3557?
GROGAN: Many of the SW member cities are considering letters or resolutions to be sent to Minnesota congressional leaders in opposition to H.R. 3557.
It’s a wrap
After Commission Chair Gerard Balan of the Hopkins City Council adjourned the meeting, SWTV producer attendees Barbara Hanson, Richard Klate and Patti Piatz drifted out through the atrium with its images of old Eden Prairie and returned to a brave new world of cell phone auteurs, TikTok trickery and artificial intelligence.
They and other access producers had been invited to the annual SWTV/BCAT holiday pizza party on Thursday in the studio, one thrown just for them.
Writer Jeff Strate is a board member of EPLN, an access producer with SWTV/BCAT and a member of the Alliance for Community Media.
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