Agencies signing up for webcast

By W. Gardner Selby
Express-News Austin Bureau

Web Posted : 07/08/2002 12:00 AM

AUSTIN Despite a 1999 law encouraging state agencies to broadcast over the Internet, most do not, and that has created a business opportunity for an Austin startup company. Inc. began live webcasts of Public Utility Commission proceedings in January 2001, and is negotiating to do the same from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, where the firm now webcasts on a delay.

The firm also webcasts from a New York utility agency and plans to begin webcasting from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington.

Clients pay a base fee of $200 a month per user. The firm also provides searchable archives of proceedings and the ability to snip and e-mail portions of meetings.

City Public Service, San Antonio's public utility, might sign up.

Steve Bartley, CPS director of regulatory relations, said a San Antonio employee could avoid the drive to Austin to attend commission meetings.

"I'm intrigued," Bartley said.

Two of the firm's founders, Dennis Thomas and Al Erwin, both former PUC commissioners, said they are close to proving their business model, which assumes they provide equipment and video staff to participating agencies and recover their investment from subscriptions.

If they are successful, Thomas said, they plan to expand into other states. The company has raised $1 million already for expansion.

Bartering equipment with agencies for exclusive Web access, the company appears to be breaking ground where state governments have not yet ventured.

"It may indicate we're pioneers or it may indicate we're on the wrong track," Thomas said. "Who knows?"

Three lawmakers were unaware of the company, and one questioned whether the PUC deal violates the 1999 law requiring any agency broadcasting meetings over the Internet to "provide access" from its Web site.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, who sponsored the measure, said legislators intended webcasts to be free.

"The intent was not to have the public pay for access," McClendon said. "This did not cross our radar screen when we were debating the bill."

By contract, provides the PUC with 50 account codes that can be given to other agencies, nonprofit groups and the general public. Each PUC employee also has a code. Thomas said a similar arrangement is being offered to the TNRCC.

Thomas called the freebies a "pragmatic solution to a very real concern. All sides need to have access to information."

The PUC has distributed 24 of the account codes, most to employees in other state agencies, four to consumer advocates and one to an employee at the Florida Public Utility Commission, a roster shows.

Additional free codes will be provided as necessary, Thomas said.

"Our commitment is to make sure there is sufficient public access," Thomas said, adding that the company will ultimately profit by packaging, archiving and redistributing webcasts.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, Senate sponsor of the 1999 law, said: "As long as there is sufficient free access to the meetings, I don't have a problem with people being innovative in terms of establishing a business."

Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, agreed.

"We should strive to provide video and audio telecasts of all legislative and regulatory proceedings," Wolens said.

Carolyn Purcell, chief information officer of the Department of Information Resources, said she has not gauged the cost of webcasts, but they are "expensive propositions."

According to a 2000 state study, Texas government is not primed for webcasts.

Advising against requiring agencies to webcast, the study states the "general public is largely uninterested in watching live government meetings" on a computer. "The majority of users are within government bodies, and among lobbyists and public interest groups" and "these special interest users prefer to view webcasts after the meeting at their convenience."

Three public interest lobbyists say government should make webcasts accessible.

"We would never agree to selling admission to public meetings," said Suzy Woodford of Common Cause.

Tom Smith of Public Citizen, who has one of the free accounts, said, "The state should provide to anyone in the state Web access to every board or commission meeting. It's our government. We have a right to know."

Janee Briesemeister of Consumers Union, who also has a free account, said: "The policy should be anybody who wants to access this should get it. But that's obviously not the reality. Until the state is willing to pay, this is a second-best deal."

PUC general counsel Susan Durso said the relationship "doesn't raise question marks for us."

Durso noted that the firm supplies equipment and a contract cameraman estimated at a value of more than $100,000. The agency provides a small room for production.

Durso said free access will take time, technology and funding.'s approach was modeled on the Texas Legislature's webcasts of House and Senate meetings. At least 40 states provide audio or video access to legislative meetings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Patsy Spaw, secretary of the Texas Senate, is surveying other states to see if the Senate might enhance its Web views.

"Our goal is not to make money, but to provide information," Spaw said.