By Luther Turmelle, North Bureau Chief
HARTFORD — Local public access television channels could make their debut on AT&T’s U-verse system by sometime next month, 16 months after the service was launched in the state, company officials said Friday.
U-verse is AT&T’s challenge to cable television in the state. The service is operating in parts of 40 communities and 135,000 households.
John Emra, AT&T’s regional vice president of external and legislative affairs, commented following a five-hour hearing before the General Assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee on a bill that proposes to improve the availability of community television on U-verse. “We’re pushing hard,” Emra said. “It really depends on how our discussions with the different local access channels go.”
AT&T officials received a heavy dose of criticism from local public access channel advocates.
The advocates say the portal, or “PEG platform” that U-verse subscribers will use to view community-based programming, will be substandard compared to what’s available from cable providers in terms of picture quality and accessibility.
The PEG platform will allow U-verse subscribers to view cable access programs not just from their own town, but ultimately from communities statewide via a pull-down menu.
“New technology is supposed to enhance, not degrade,” Jennifer Evans, executive director of West Hartford Community Television, told members of the legislative committee. “Please don’t legislate a race to the bottom.”
Walter Mann, executive director of North Haven Community Television, said the fear that local access television advocates have is that if House Bill 5814 is approved with its current language concerning U-verse’s PEG platform intact, cable companies will follow suit.
“The (public access) channels are valuable bandwidth for the cable companies,” Mann said after testifying before lawmakers. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they would look to do that at some point if this bill became law.”
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal reminded committee members of when AT&T officials went before lawmakers last year to seek legislation that allows U-verse to be regulated differently than the cable companies.
“They stressed how community access was critical and how it would be an improvement on what was on cable,” Blumenthal said. “We need to act now to insure that CT-N (Connecticut Television Network) and the other channels are at least as good or better than they are on cable.”
Paul Giguere, president and chief executive officer of CT-N, said he has seen U-verse operate in Michigan and accessing the portal requires users to wait a minute or more.
“This will be disaster for us,” Giguere said.
State Rep. Kevin DelGobbo, R-Naugatuck, and a member of the committee, said AT&T and CT-N need to work out their dispute quickly. “They don’t want the legislature and its constituents getting angry because they can’t get this done,” he said.