Communications Policy and Regulation Division

Fairfax County, Virginia

CONTACT INFORMATION: Open during regular business hours 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Monday - Friday

703-324-5902
TTY 711

12000 Government Center Parkway
Suite 433

Rick Ellrod,
Director

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Fairfax County does not regulate rates for cable television service. Federal law prevents local governments from regulating cable rates where there is "effective competition" as defined by federal law. See 47 USC § 543 . The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled in 2007 and 2008 that there was "effective competition" in the County. If you have questions about the rates charged by a cable operator, contact the Communications Policy and Regulation Division or call 703-324-5902, TTY 711.

As of March 2019, cable operators take the position that a so-called price guarantee - for example, a fixed price in exchange for a two-year contract - does not prevent the company from adding new fees or surcharges, or increasing existing surcharges at will, so that the subscriber has to pay more to receive the purchased service tier.  Such surcharges include the “broadcast fee” and “regional sports network fee” (see separate FAQ on those charges).  The company may also raise its rates for the equipment needed to receive the service, such as a set-top box.

Cable operators may also change the programming on the selected tier at any time.  If the company moves off the tier some of the channels the subscriber wants, the subscriber may have to pay more for a package that includes the desired programming.

Consumers are advised to recognize these limitations when signing up for a cable provider contract that promises a “fixed” price for the contract term.

Fairfax County’s cable franchise agreements require the cable operators to pay for the use of the public rights-of-way through (among other things) support for Public, Educational and Government (PEG) cable channels. Federal law allows the cable operators to itemize these fees on subscriber bills. A portion of these fees goes to support Fairfax County Government Channel 16, and the County institutional network.

These fees are add-on charges by the cable company.  The “broadcast fee” represents some part of what local broadcasters charge the cable TV provider to carry their channels.  Similarly, the “regional sports network fee” itemizes some part of the cable provider’s cost for carrying regional sports channels on their system.  Neither charge is a government-required fee, tax or pass-through.  Rather, itemizing such amounts separately increases the money the cable provider receives from subscribers while allowing it to quote or advertise a lower rate for the cable service package itself.  Under federal law, Fairfax County has no authority to set cable rates.

A homeowner’s property rights are subject to “easements” that allow other parties to use parts of the property for certain purposes. For example, a utility easement generally allows public utilities to run their lines through a yard next to the street.

The documents a homeowner received when closing the sale usually include a title search or property plat showing the easements on the property at the time of purchase. Easements are also recorded on the property’s title records, which can be searched at Land Records on the third floor of the County courthouse (main number 703-246-4102, information desk 703-246-4102).

For further information, see Homeowners Have Rights During Utility Construction.


In the County, public access channels are provided by an independent 501(c)(3) entity, Fairfax Cable Access Corporation (also known as Fairfax Public Access). A public access channel is open to any lawful speech. The views expressed on public access are not those of the County or of FCAC, but only those of the individual speakers on each program.

The First Amendment to the Constitution prevents a government from censoring what citizens say on public access channels. Thus, even if programming is false or otherwise objectionable, a speaker is free to present that programming as long as it is not unlawful. (For example, obscenity, as defined by law, may be prohibited; but political views with which the County disagrees may not be prohibited.)

The American right to free speech is based on the principle that the best antidote to bad speech is better speech. Thus, those who disagree with objectionable programming are free to refute it. Public access studios are open to those who wish to develop forceful rebuttals. The County encourages cogent, effective responses to “hate speech” and misinformation.

As distinct from public access channels, educational and governmental channels are directly controlled by the educational and governmental institutions that operate them. Questions concerning material on Fairfax County Government Channel 16 may properly be directed to the County.

For further information regarding the County’s public access channels, citizens may contact Chuck Finn Peña, Executive Director of Fairfax Public Access, at 571-749-1100 or cpena@fcac.org. General questions regarding cable programming may be addressed to the Communications Policy and Regulation Division of the Department of Cable Communications and Consumer Protection at 703-324-5902 or cprd@fairfaxcounty.gov.

Commercial broadcast stations can elect to require carriage on cable systems (“must carry”), or negotiate with the local cable provider to carry their programming for a price (“retransmission consent”). If the broadcaster chooses retransmission consent, and does not reach an agreement with the cable operator, the broadcast channel will be removed from the cable system.

Noncommercial broadcast stations operate under a different set of must-carry rules. 47 USC § 535

Under federal law, the County cannot require a cable operator to carry particular channels in its programming packages. See 47 U.S.C. § 544(a)-(b).

Under normal conditions, a cable operator does have to provide subscribers with thirty days’ advance notice of channel changes. 47 C.F.R. § 76.1603(b)-(3).

TV channels in Fairfax County - plan to re-scan!  During the next year, some TV channels throughout the USA will be changing their frequencies as a result of the FCC’s “repacking” of frequencies to make room for new services.  If you watch TV using an over-the-air antenna, you will need to re-scan your TV periodically to find the new channel locations.
Here is detailed information from the FCC: https://www.fcc.gov/TVrescan 
The FCC makes this information available in several other languages.
 

The picture below shows which channels in Fairfax County will be affected by the FCC’s channel “repacking.”

channel repack 2019 schedule OTA

 

During the 2020 legislative session, Virginia adopted a new law (HB 831) expanding the rights of electric utilities (such as Dominion Energy and NOVEC) and communications providers (such as Comcast, Cox and Verizon) to place new facilities in easements, limiting the rights of property owners. Among other things, the law sets strict time limits for obtaining relief and limits what compensation homeowners may recover for damages. Because most private property in the County has existing utility and communications easements, County homeowners should be aware of how this law impacts their property rights.

The law became effective on July 1, 2020, and is codified in the Virginia Code at § 55.1-306.1.

What are easements?

An easement is a right granted by a property owner to another party allowing that other party to use the owner’s land for a particular purpose. For example, a single-family home is typically subject to an easement that allows utilities to use a strip of land along the roadway to install their power lines. Similarly, telephone companies and cable TV providers are granted easements to allow the providers to install communications lines across the owner’s property for telephone, Internet, and cable TV services.

What does the new law do?

The Virginia legislature adopted HB 831 at the behest of electric utilities and communications providers to make it easier for these providers to provide broadband and other communications services. The law gives communications providers an automatic right to use any electric easement, unless that easement specifically prohibits its use for communications.

To prevent homeowners from claiming that this new grant to communications providers intrudes on their property rights, the law states that the new rights granted to communications providers are “merely changes in the manner, purpose, or degree of the granted use,” and do not interfere with or take any rights away from the owner of the property.

HB 831 also includes a number of specific, substantive provisions that affect property owners’ rights. For example, the law states that:

• Property owners are not entitled to any additional compensation from the utility or communications provider for the new use of the easement, unless an additional utility pole is installed in the easement.

• Any lawsuits after July 1, 2020, for trespass, seeking damages from an incumbent utility or communications provider, are limited to actual financial damages only.

• Landowners must bring any action against an incumbent utility or communications provider within 12 months of the time any overhead facilities are installed or any underground facilities are discovered. If notice has actually been mailed to the landowner or occupant, the time period is reduced to 6 months.

• All claims for trespass are forever barred unless the landowner has filed within 12 months a written statement addressed to the incumbent utility and, if known, the communications provider detailing the alleged violation.

The foregoing information is not legal advice and is provided for informational purposes only. If you have concerns regarding the impact of the new easement law on your property rights, you may want to consider contacting an attorney.

As part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 that was signed into law at the end of 2020, Congress tasked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with developing a new $3.2 billion program to help U.S. households that are struggling to pay for internet service during the Covid-19 pandemic. The FCC sought public comments and, on February 25, 2021, unanimously voted to adopt a Report and Order implementing the program. See the FCC’s Press Release here.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit (or EBB) will provide discounts of up to $50 per month towards broadband Internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for those on Tribal lands. Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute $10-$50 toward the purchase price.

Although the text of the EBB program Report and Order has not yet been released, it is expected to state that households are eligible for the program when a member of the household:

• Qualifies for the FCC’s Lifeline program;

• Receives benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program;

• Experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020;

• Received a Federal Pell Grant; or

• Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating providers’ existing low-income or COVID-19 program. (In Fairfax County, the existing Cable TV providers’ programs can be found here for Comcast, Cox and Verizon).

According to the FCC, the EBB program is expected to be open to eligible households by the end of April, 2021 as providers sign up and program systems are put in place. This information will be updated as soon as updates are available.

 

Fairfax Virtual Assistant