Activists trying to ensure that the City of Davenport improves public access to cable-television-production and -broadcast services are competing against some tough opponents: a public vocally concerned about cable rates and a cable provider threatening to pass increased public-access costs onto consumers.

On April 9, in the first of two scheduled public-input sessions, members of the city council and Mediacom fielded a lot of questions about cable rates. Primarily: Why are they so high, and why do they keep increasing?

The answer is that programming costs, particularly for sports, rise significantly each year - ESPN, for instance, has averaged a 30-percent increase over the past five years - and those generally get passed on to consumers.

The irony of the public-input session is that federal law doesn't allow municipalities to set cable rates; there is a mechanism through which cities can challenge rates, but it's severely restricted. While there are many issues before the city council as it tries to negotiate a new franchise agreement with Mediacom - the last extension expired in February and was not renewed - rate regulation won't be one of them.

Yet rates do come into play in any discussion of public access. Mediacom has been adamant that consumers will bear increased costs - including those created by a better public-access system. In this way, Mediacom is essentially pitting consumers against public-access interests.

Community Access Television Inc. (CATI) is asking the city to incorporate in its franchise agreement a provision that "Davenport should be served by a funded, nonprofit access facilitator, providing a studio, technical assistance, and equipment, for public-, educational-, and government-access programming," according to the organization's presentation. CATI board members have marked up the city's draft franchise agreement, suggesting alternative wordings as well as new provisions.

"We need to provide public access in a way that's convenient for them [members of the public] to do something," said Jeffery Glasen, an incoming CATI board member and an instructor of communications and electronic media at Scott Community College. He said he considers public access "one of the safeguards in the democratic process" and a way to "get alternate voices out there."

But public access costs money, and Mediacom said it won't eat that cost. In discussing increased fees cables systems have had to pay programmers, Mediacom Director of Government Relations Joe Koebrick said, "We have to pass through our costs" to customers.

The draft of the franchise agreement says that over its 15-year term, Mediacom will provide four capital grants for public, educational, and governmental access - in 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2012 - providing that the city dedicates at least 40 percent of its franchise fee to support government and public access. The amount of those grants has not been specified yet. The city currently pays a franchise fee of $887,000, so the required city outlay would be more than $350,000 a year to public and government access.

A second public-input is scheduled for Wednesday, April 30, at 6 p.m. at Davenport City Hall. Drafts of the franchise agreement and regulatory ordinance are available on the city's Web site (http://www.cityofdavenportiowa.com) in the "Latest News" section.

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