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Airwaves for the People | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Airwaves for the People

Chairman Genachowski took a step in the right direction today by announcing the FCC's intention to regulate broadband in order to ensure net neutrality. Media reform advocates are confident that this is good news for preserving the open Internet and promoting universal access.

The victory isn't complete, however. While Genachowski proposed reclassifying broadband as a “telecommunications service” so that the FCC has clear authority to protect consumers and promote competition, the Chairman intends to use a procedure called "forbearance" to broadly waive all of the competition provisions of the Telecommunications Act. Considering that the National Broadband Plan noted that 96 percent of Americans have at most two choices of internet service providers--that we have a real problem with monopolies and duopolies--we need the FCC to make use of its statutory powers to address this issue.

After an internal review at the FCC, the process will call for public comment and consulting with stakeholders. That means industry lobbyists will have more time to plead their case to the Chairman and the grassroots needs to stay involved. When the Washington Post reported earlier this week that Genachowski intended to cave to industry lobbyists nearly 250,000 citizens signed a letter from FreePress demanding that the FCC reclaim its authority. We need to maintain that level of vigilance in the coming weeks.

Commissioner Copps recognized that today’s announcement is a mixed bag. In a released statement he said, "Today Chairman Genachowski announced his plan to remove the legal cloud hanging over the FCC’s ability to protect America's broadband users. This plan can put us on the right road--if we travel that road swiftly, surely and with the primary goal of protecting consumers foremost in our minds. Frankly, I would have preferred plain and simple [ reclassification] through a declaratory ruling and limited, targeted forbearance…. The devil will be in the details as we work to put the Commission back on solid legal footing... We must avoid another forbearance binge. We experienced a mad rush to forbearance in previous Commissions and it usually created many more problems than it resolved... The path we start down today must do more than just put this agency's authority over broadband back on life-support--it must ensure our going-forward, healthy ability to protect consumers. One near-death experience is enough."

*****

According to The Washington Post, sources say that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski will soon retreat from the Obama Administration's pledge to deliver a new and more democratic technology agenda. Reportedly, the Chairman will continue the Bush-era classification of the internet as an unregulated "information service," rather than reclassifying it as a "telecommunications service" subject to FCC authority.

And why does this wonky bit of legalese matter?

Because if it's not a telecommunications service, the courts have already demonstrated that the FCC will have little ability to ensure universal access to broadband, prevent blocked or censored content, or protect consumers from price-gouging or invasions of privacy. What is called "Net Neutrality" will virtually go up in flames, freeing Big Telecom to manipulate what we can access on the web for their own profits.

In fact, the FCC's own general counsel wrote that the current classification might undermine the Commission's ability to promote broadband access in rural America; connect low-income Americans, Native American communities, and Americans with disabilities; support the use of broadband by small businesses to drive productivity and innovation; and strengthen cybersecurity, consumer protection and privacy.

And here's another important and rarely discussed reason we need to ensure that the FCC has the authority to protect a free and open internet—it will impact whether we are able to achieve a greater range of voices over our radio airwaves, or we continue to live with a virtual right-wing monopoly of misinformation. To understand that aspect of the reclassification issue—read on.

How bad is the political imbalance on our radio dial? Check out these stats from a Center for American Progress study: on the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners, 91 percent of the total weekday programming is conservative, and 9 percent is progressive; and each weekday, there is 2,570 hours of conservative talk compared to just 254 hours of progressive talk—more than ten hours of conservative talk to every one hour of progressive radio.

Even with limited opportunities, progressives like Bill Press, Amy Goodman, Stephanie Miller, Michel Martin, Jim Hightower, Laura Flanders, Tavis Smiley and Thom Hartmann are still thriving in radio. But if you believe in the marketplace—in this case, the marketplace of ideas—you should be troubled by how skewed this is. As populist talk radio and MSNBC broadcaster Ed Schultz said on his TV show recently, "The American people own the airwaves—licenses are given for station owners to operate the airwaves in the public interest."

So, is there a solution?

Well, it won't be easy. Decades of deregulation and conglomeratization have taken their toll. Progressives have long focused on restoring the Fairness Doctrine. Overturned by the FCC in 1987, it required broadcasters to offer alternative points of view on controversial issues. But it's become a red herring, manipulated to charge Democrats with trying to censor their critics. And according to Josh Silver, executive director of the media reform advocacy organization Free Press, it's "constitutionally on very weak footing."

But there are other steps that citizens can fight for to make real the concept enshrined in the 1934 Communications Act that our airwaves belong to the people and should be operated in the public interest.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps—a man dedicated to the public interest and who has thought long and hard about how to address this imbalance—told me, "We won't restore balance until we restore enforceable public interest guidelines to the people's airwaves. These guidelines must put a premium on a station producing news in return for its license—real news that reflects what's actually happening in the community, provides watchdog journalism, does justice to minorities and to different viewpoints, and nourishes the civic dialogue needed to sustain democracy. In exchange for free use of the public airwaves, broadcasters need to do this; the country needs it, too."

Look for the Commissioner to push specific proposals along these lines in the near future. In the mean time, there are both long- and shorter-term solutions that will help end the right-wing propaganda monopoly of our airwaves.

Free Press's Silver said Low Power FM licenses are on the horizon and will add a range of diversity. The House already passed the Local Community Radio Act, and the Senate version introduced by Senators Maria Cantwell and John McCain awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

"We believe that after many years of lobbying there will be more low-power fm radio licenses granted to not-for-profit entities in the next few years," said Silver. "That will provide literally hundreds if not thousands of new low-power FM licenses that will be up for grabs—particularly in rural areas, and that’s positive."

But Silver believes the true long-term solution is "ubiquitous, wireless broadband instead of traditional radio signals." The current obstacles to diversity on the radio dial are "a scarcity of licenses to scarce spots on radio dials, and a high cost of overhead for stations that operate on them," he says. "As a result, progressive voices can't get on because they either can't get a license or they can't afford to run the station."

Silver says wireless radio—either satellite radio or digital wireless—could bring "limitless spots on the dial" and "an environment where you can really let a thousand flowers bloom. People who are concerned about progressive issues need to get behind efforts to bring fast ubiquitous internet to the country—to everyone, rural and urban, rich and poor."

Which brings us back to the issue of FCC reclassifying the internet as a "telecommunications service."

A recent court decision said the agency has no authority to regulate the internet under the current political structure. (In that case, the court said the FCC could not force Comcast to stop blocking the file sharing application BitTorrent.) It seems when the Bush FCC decided to reclassify broadband as an "information service" it tied the FCC's hands in terms of protecting consumers, promoting competition, or deploying the national broadband plan.

The good news there is the FCC can reclassify the internet as a “communications service” with a simple up or down vote. According to CongressDaily, Commissioners Copps and Mignon Clyburn have said they would support such action, so the votes are there if Chairman Genachowski refuses to cave to Big Telecom and stands firm for a pro-technology agenda. But that's a big if.

"The Chairman of the FCC has to have a backbone and be willing to face up to the cable and phone companies which represent the second largest lobby in Washington after pharmaceuticals," says Silver.

You can call the White House at (202) 456-1111—as MoveOn members are doing—and tell them to stand up for an open Internet and ensure that the FCC asserts its authority to regulate telecom companies and protect Net Neutrality.

You can tell the FCC Commissioners to reclassify broadband as a "telecommunications service."

You can email Chairman Genachowski directly or call him at (202) 418-1000 and let him know how important this is to you.

As Commissioner Copps told Bill Moyers on his show last month, "If your big issue is energy dependence, or climate change, or health insurance, or expanding equal opportunity—this issue of the future of the media, now the media on broadband, has to be your number two issue. Because—on that one—depends on how your number one issue gets filtered and funneled to the American people."

By empowering the FCC to take action over the long haul we will ensure that a full range of views and voices in this country will be heard over the people’s airwaves, and a free and open internet is a tool which every citizen is able to access.

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