Ten years after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, digital technologies are rapidly reshaping the country’s communications system. It will be the most powerful media environment ever created–always “on” with connections via PCs, digital TVs and an array of mobile devices, delivering a torrent of personalized, interactive and virtual content, much of it coming from the nation’s most powerful traditional and new media companies (e.g., AT&T, Comcast, Google, Microsoft). The next several years are critical to insure that the promise of what we now experience online–and its vast potential to help build a just civil society–is fulfilled. With Congress poised to pass legislation that rewrites key parts of the Telecom Act, the following ten action items should be on any media reform agenda.
1. Media Ownership
The GOP-controlled FCC wants to eliminate key media ownership restrictions affecting TV and radio stations, cable systems and newspapers. Expect fewer owners of our most powerful outlets and a further decrease in journalism budgets.
Action: Join the new “Stopbigmedia” coalition (www.stopbigmedia.com) to promote diversity of media ownership and content. Also, work against the renomination of FCC chair Kevin Martin.
Sprawling new media powerhouses are emerging, in which offline and digital content and distribution, advertising and marketing are tied to the same multinational giants. For example, the pending AT&T and BellSouth merger will create a colossus spanning voice, broadband and video.
Action: Join with Media Access Project (www.mediaaccess.org) to fight the AT&T/BellSouth merger. Push for new laws to restore our trust in antitrust.
3. Network Neutrality
We can’t permit the Internet to come under the control of phone and cable companies, like Comcast and AT&T, that want to transform it into a toll road, with fast lanes for corporate media and a digital dirt road for everyone else.
Action: Join the “strange bedfellows” coalition, which includes MoveOn.org, the American Library Association and the Christian Coalition, pressing Congress to pass “network neutrality” rules to protect the principles of nondiscrimination and open access. Join Save the Internet (www.savetheinternet.com).
4. Spectrum Management
The wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) has been an unprecedented success, with more than 35,000 hot spots (many of them free) operating in the United States. But for the wireless broadband revolution to continue, it needs new unlicensed spectrum. Big communications companies, including broadcasters, want to keep for themselves what should be the public’s airwaves.
Action: Urge the FCC to set aside additional spectrum for unlicensed use and support legislation currently in Congress that will make unused TV spectrum available for Wi-Fi applications. The New America Foundation (www.newamerica.net) has been leading the charge for enlightened spectrum management.
5. Community Broadband
Municipal wireless systems represent the most promising alternative to the two-fisted stranglehold that cable and telephone companies currently have over the broadband Internet. Fourteen states, acting at the behest of the cable and telco lobbies, have passed laws limiting these efforts, and others are considering such restrictions.
Action: Urge your Representatives to support federal legislation (e.g., the municipal broadband provision in the otherwise objectionable Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement [COPE] Act) that will restore the right of cities to undertake their own broadband projects. See Free Press’s Community Internet page (www.freepress.net/communityinternet/=US).