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Charles City Broadband Commission dissolves as Public Access Network fades in use

By Travis Fischer,

Once a well-used resource for the Charles City community to keep up with local events, the Charles City Public Access Network (PAN) is now settling itself into obsolescence.

Decades ago, when cable television was the next big thing in telecommunication, cable companies were required to allocate a channel dedicated to local public access.

Charles City Broadband Commission dissolves as Public Access Network fades in useCharles City utilized this service, paid for by a franchise fee attached to every cable subscriber’s bill, to provide a public access channel by working in tandem with other organizations in the community.

The Chamber of Commerce served as the public contact point for the network while Main Street Charles City took care of the administrative record keeping. The PAN equipment itself was kept at the Charles City High School, where students were taught how to use the cameras and cablecast to the channel. They were tasked with recording public meetings, concerts, and other events of public interest.

For many years, cable Channel 4 has served as a place for the community to view public events when they couldn’t be there in person. However the need for a dedicated public access channel has decreased substantially as time moved forward.

“There isn’t a big demand for access to public television in the age of YouTube,” said City Administrator Steve Diers.

As online video became more commonplace, organizations began live-streaming their own events, eliminating the need for a public access network.

“COVID comes along, we all start using Zoom, and now it’s really easy for us,” said Diers.

With every local government body now managing its own media through online services, PAN broadcasts of public meetings ended and never came back.

The PAN took another blow this year when the Charles City School District eliminated its director of communications position due to budget cuts. While the school has, until recently, continued to house the PAN equipment, it no longer has a broadcasting room or a class to use it.

Even if there was an interest, the city no longer even has the capacity to broadcast programming over Channel 4. Diers says the outdated equipment has become defunct and would cost tens of thousands of dollars to update and replace.

Ever-declining revenue from cable TV franchise fees as more and more people “cut the cord” in favor of alternatives like satellite television and streaming services means that not only is there less money to support the PAN, but that there are also fewer people that would utilize it anyway.

“It’s decreased to the point now that it’s not providing a lot,” said Community Development Director Mark Wicks, who is largely responsible for keeping the PAN updated these days.

Today, there is little shown over the public access channel outside of the community calendar, the menu for the Senior Center, and obituary notices, all of which have to be hand-typed and transmitted to the channel at the Chamber of Commerce building.

Overseeing the Public Access Network was the city’s Broadband Commission, appointed by the city, which today has little left to oversee. Many of its past responsibilities, such as negotiations with cable companies and regulation of telecommunication towers, have been taken over by the state, while the city’s efforts at a municipal broadband project were delegated to the Charles City Telecommunications Utility Board.

After many months of not meeting at all, it was announced on Tuesday, Nov. 30, that the city would be dissolving the Broadband Commission.

While the PAN is all but assuredly in its swan song, Wicks says that those who do still check in on Channel 4 will continue to have it in its current state until it is phased out completely. From there, it’s not yet decided what will happen next.

“We want to continue to get information out to people,” said Wicks. “We’re going to continue to get information out to people one way or another.”

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