Sen. Stevens’ Broadband Bill: Building A Digital Bridge to Nowhere

What do you say about a supposed update of the nation’s basic communications laws in the digital era that first starts off discussing low cost calls to home for the armed forces fighting a “war on terrorism.” Or that the 135-page draft released this week is principally about an old technology: TV. What it says is that the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee—and his legion of lobbyist’ allies– can’t be trusted to oversee our nation’s digital future. Let’s remember—Senator Stevens supported the last major media industry give-away: the disastrous and lobbyist written 1996 Telecommunications Act.

His proposed new law doesn’t address how to harness the power of broadband communications to foster civic discourse, democratic participation, or even the arts. Sen. Steven’s bill is primarily about permitting the Bell and cable companies to reap enormous profits from selling captive consumers interactive video services. Under the bill, broadband transmission speeds are set absurdly low (anywhere from 200 kbs to 3mbs per second)—at a time when the rest of the industrialized world offers users blazing fast distribution. Instead of boldly declaring that every U.S. resident should have affordable broadband access [which will soon be a necessity], Stevens asks the Census Bureau to add an “American Community Survey Residential Internet Question” that will ask “what technology…households use to access the Internet from home.” It will take years with such an effort to develop a serious approach to equitable Internet access. In another blow to low-income Americans, the proposed law effectively fails to prevent Bell Co. network redlining. Stevens creates a complaint procedure at the FCC that will ensure discriminated consumers won’t be served for many years.

This legislation turns over the Internet to the cable and phone lobby. It does nothing on network neutrality, save a meaningless study by the toothless and in-the-industry-pocket FCC. Here we can see Stevens and Co.’s close ties with AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner, etc. K-Street crowd. Is it a coincidence—or just a bad joke—that network neutrality is only mentioned in a “Broadband Deployment” bill at the very end of the draft (right after the section of the bill attacking video porn). The bill also breaks the ability of local government to ensure residents reap the benefits of broadband networks (it guts franchising). A more thoughtful piece of legislation would have ensured some serious local oversight and access to broadband capacity, while simultaneously requiring an open network.

But this bill is more about video programming and sorting out the various show-biz industry political wish lists than a forward-thinking, democratically-inspired piece of legislation. It’s time that Sen. Inouye, the so-called co-chair of the Commerce Committee, do a shout-out for the Internet and the public interest in the broadband era (it will help make up for his yea on the 96 Act). We all need to help him listen.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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