A federal judge on Wednesday upheld a Maine law requiring cable TV providers to restore public access programming to low channel numbers that are easier for viewers to find.

The law upheld by U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen also would require the cable companies to extend service to lower-density parts of the state, broadcast locally produced content in the same format it is provided – such as high definition – and provide public access program information on channel guides.

Torresen’s ruling rejected cable industry arguments that the law conflicts with federal rules on cable regulations and violates the cable companies’ First Amendment rights.

“We were surprised – she ruled in our favor on all the counts,”  said Tony Vigue, a cable contract consultant who ran a South Portland public access cable channel for more than two decades.

The Internet and Television Association, which filed the lawsuit, said in a statement that it was disappointed with the court’s ruling.

“We continue to believe that Maine’s burdensome network build-out and PEG (public, education and government use) requirements conflict with federal law and should be preempted, and that the PEG mandates independently violate cable operators’ First Amendment rights,” it said. “We are reviewing the ruling and considering next steps.”

A spokeswoman for Charter Communications, which operates under the Spectrum brand, declined comment on the ruling.

Dozens of Maine public access cable channels, which usually provide coverage of local government meetings along with some locally produced programming, had been carried for decades on lower-numbered channels, typically alongside the cable broadcasts of local television stations. But in 2017, some cable companies, including Spectrum in southern Maine, moved those channels to what critics call “digital Siberia” – generally on channel 1300 and higher.

“That’s what really aggravated us – that they would do that (move the channels) after 30 years of being where they were,” Vigue said. That prompted the law approved by the Legislature last year requiring that the public access channels be moved back to their original placement in the cable lineup.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, whose office defended the law, said moving the channels made “it all but impossible to find and view community-run television stations.”

“The stations play a vital role in our state,” Frey said. “They allow citizens to observe town meetings, watch high school sports events and receive information about important social, political and – as is particularly relevant now – public health issues.”

In the lawsuit, the cable association argued that the cable companies were trying to create “a neighborhood” of public access channels that would be easier for the companies to manage.

Vigue said the law’s requirement that public access programming be carried on the on-screen guide was less important because many stations lack the staffing to keep those listings up to date. He said the information has be entered manually and it’s a time-consuming process. But public access channels wanted the right to include information on the guide if the channels could handle the input requirements.

Torresen’s ruling said federal laws do restrict many regulations of cable companies to the federal government’s authority, but that they also give states control over some aspects of cable television. That includes consumer protection rules and PEG access, Torresen said, which is usually addressed in local contracts for cable operations between municipalities and cable companies. And she ruled that decisions over which channels are assigned to local access programming are a matter of consumer protection, as is the requirement to carry programs in high-definition formats if it’s recorded that way.

The cable companies argued that high-definition broadcasts use up to four times the cable bandwidth compared with standard-definition broadcasts.

Torresen also rejected the cable association’s argument that Maine’s law violates the First Amendment rights of cable companies by limiting their editorial discretion over how, and on which channels, to transmit local access programming. Torreson said other court rulings allow for some control over cable companies’ decisions about which channels to carry, and she turned the argument around, saying that exercising controls on public access broadcasts violated those channels’ First Amendment rights.

Torresen sided with the cable industry in December when she granted a preliminary injunction against enforcement of a Maine law requiring cable companies to allow customers to pick and choose what channels they wanted to order on an à-la-carte basis, rather than the packages of channels that cable companies typically offer. In issuing that injunction, she said the cable companies were likely to win on their claim that the law violated their First Amendment rights to exercise editorial control over channel packages.

That ruling is on appeal to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

The Maine law on public access channels also required cable companies to offer to provide cable service to parts of towns with a density of at least 15 homes per cable mile. Vigue said the cable companies have in recent years sought to require greater densities to avoid having to offer service to rural parts of the state.

He said the 15-per-mile rule will mean that cable service – and broadband internet service – will be available to about 5,000 more Maine customers.

Torresen’s ruling said the density rules were left to local communities and states to decide under federal cable regulations.

In the lawsuit, the cable association said some of Charter Communications’ agreements with towns and cities have a requirement for service if the density is at least 43 homes per mile, and some have no density rules at all. Most of Comcast’s franchise agreements, the suit said, call for service in areas with densities of 17 to 30 homes per mile for above-ground cable lines.

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