Rep. Joe Barton and Co. destroy “Community Communications”

The Barton-Hastert-Rush bill has been concocted by telephone industry lobbyists (with some recent help by the cable industry) to remove any scintilla of oversight the public might have over broadband communications. It reflects how corrupt so many lawmakers are in the nation’s capital—and how the big money from special interests easily buys them off. It also illustrates how the same tired communications lobbying pleas–heard most recently when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed–conveniently provides political cover for a huge giveaway. Just free us from rules designed to protect the public, claim (fill in the blank) the Bells, cable, or broadcasters, and the country will be awash in jobs, better health care, and competition. These are really code words for: get ready for an even bigger monopoly over communications.

The Bells want to string out their wires in the most affluent neighborhoods of the country—all so they can profit from what they know will be a IPTV gold mine: pay-per-view movies, on-demand TV programming, and interactive advertising. They also wanted to unleash their broadband business model that will give us the pay-as-you-surf Infobahn: that’s why they oppose “network neutrality” safeguards.

However, the U.S.’s last remaining form of local control over communications—known as cable TV franchising—has stood in the way. Cable TV was supposed to be a “community communications” service. That’s the way it was sold to the U.S. back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Each community would have the ability to ensure that the powerful medium of cable broadband (yes—it was called that even back then) would serve the local public interest. Cable companies were required to negotiate an agreement with local government before they could offer service, called a franchise. This process permitted local government to obtain communications services that would be especially beneficial for their residents. So cities have been able to negotiate for their schools to be connected to the Internet. They were able to negotiate for networks that connected all their public buildings, important for city services and public safety. Finally, local franchises permitted cities to negotiate for communications services that provided for public, educational and governmental public access channels.

And it’s now about to be swept away. It was never perfect—far from it. The cable lobby used its vast resources to buy off politicians at the local, state, and national level. A system meant for local service became, as we know, primarily a medium for national programming and advertising. But the concept of local public oversight over multichannel communications services has remained an important one.

Smart communities around the country began negotiating for pieces of cable’s broadband capacity. Not just a few channels for public access, but a modest portion of bandwidth that could deliver a multitude of local digital communications services. Cities had asked for their broadband networks to be operated under an “open access” or “network neutrality” regime. More importantly, cities had the political leverage of the franchise to ensure that cable companies couldn’t “redline” against low-income neighborhoods.

The phone companies were horrified that they would actually have to provide unique public service for each of the communities they intended to pump out digital dollars from. They were frightened that local community leaders might actually be able to hold their networks accountable to serve the community. So they used their deep pockets to push through favorable state legislation and now, it appears, in the Congress (take a look at Joe Barton and Dennis Hastert’s top contributors).

We are about to lose all this, especially the important principle of community communications. It is to be replaced by a “national franchise” that doesn’t provide the public with any leverage to ensure their cities receive what should be substantial benefits in the digital age. Under the bill, communities won’t be able to obtain any help to ensure they are networked and connected. Public access “channels”—supposedly the public’s voice—won’t have the capacity to remain a vital form of communications in the broadband era. Under the proposed law, the cable industry will also be able to soon escape from their current franchises. The bill does next-to-nothing to address the dangers to the public as both the phone and cable industry transform the broadband Internet into a bigger digital gravy train (the so-called network neutrality issue).

Both the cities and the public interest community haven’t really fought the Barton bill with the ferocious opposition it requires. Some public interest groups have decided to offer a form of trade-off, mistakenly believing that they can win support for network neutrality safeguards by giving the Bells a national franchise. They are naive if they believe such a deal would occur. More importantly, we are giving away an important principle: the right of communities to ensure the public benefits from broadband communications.

It’s true that the Bell-backed lobbying effort seems unstoppable. But the concept of “community communications” is even more necessary, in my opinion, in this new era. We will be awash with all kinds of national services—and connected to international ones. But if our digital transformation isn’t designed to benefit real people where they live—what’s it good for?

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