Congress is about to strike a blow that would eliminate the last remaining policy insuring local oversight of communications companies. A GOP-led effort on behalf of the telephone lobby (principally Verizon and AT&T), also backed by many Democrats, is about to toss in the dustbin the longstanding policy enabling cities or counties to negotiate a “franchise” agreement with companies that provide cable TV service. The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted Wednesday 42-12, to strip away the rights of communities to have any say in how phone and cable networks serve them in the digital era.
As Verizon and AT&T roll out their broadband Internet and video services, they wish to remove any obstacle to securing lucrative revenues from signing up customers from the wealthiest parts of the country. The phone giants complain that current law requires them to negotiate with each town (as cable TV currently does) to develop a unique deal that benefits the community, and that giving local officials the authority to have an oversight role is slowing down their business plans.
With the backing of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and in exchange for some likely Tom DeLay-style quid pro quo that will give the GOP lots of “Baby Bell” campaign cash, legislation is being rushed through Congress. Local oversight is to be replaced by a “national franchise” that will permit the most powerful communications giants in the Internet era–large cable and phone companies–to operate without regard for local concerns. Under the bill (co-sponsored by House Commerce Committee chair Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, and Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois) phone companies could engage in a form of economic redlining, serving only the most affluent parts of town; the current local franchise system prevents such discrimination. Communities would not be able to enact any consumer safeguards, such as privacy protection; the bill would permit our very corrupt Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to set such protection rules.
While the proposed legislation does require phone and cable companies to pay annual fees to cities and also to provide public, educational and governmental (PEG) access channels for local use, it freezes in time PEG capacity–setting aside only a handful of public channels while placing off-limits the enormous potential of broadband cable systems to serve the public interest. Under the proposed national franchise plan, cable companies would be able to opt out of their current agreements, leaving local officials and residents powerless at the precise time when digital communications services are playing an ever-growing role in our daily lives.
Little has been written in the mainstream press about what the potential loss of cable franchising will mean. More than thirty years ago in The Nation, Ralph Lee Smith wrote the visionary “The Wired Nation.” Even back then, activists recognized cable TV’s ability to serve as a “community communications” system (they even used the word “broadband” back then). Cable was supposed to be an alternative to mainstream commercial television. There would be many local channels, addressing the needs of education, civic participation, free speech and the arts. Cable systems and programming channels would be owned and operated by people of color, potentially ameliorating what was–and still is–a communications industry dominated by white males and largely programmed to their interests. The cable lobby adopted much of this rhetoric as companies vied to secure lucrative deals with cities. We will be your “community medium,” they declared, promising to deliver PEG and an endless array of local services. But once these giants, whose successors today include companies such as Time Warner and Comcast, won the franchise, they used their political power–at City Hall and in Washington, DC–to break most of their promises. The cable lobby assembled a powerful political machine, including key Democratic leaders, and was able to win national legislation in 1984 that largely freed them to operate as national programming services.
But a generation of video activists and visionaries, along with pioneering public-interest FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson, had already helped usher in the concept of public-access television. Public-access advocates fought back then–as they are doing now–to preserve some form of cable’s original community vision. Today, more than 20,000 hours of new local programming are produced each week by the approximately 3,000 PEG channels in the United States, relying on a largely volunteer corps of 1.2 million access producers. PEG is the only place where city councils, school boards and programs on a dizzying array of subjects, many of them serious and creative, routinely appear on television. Despite federal rules favoring cable companies, local governments have retained their ability to negotiate franchise renewal deals that have helped expanded PEG capacity to reflect updates in technology, such as streaming video and other broadband distribution.
Franchises have required special networks to be built, connecting public buildings with advanced communications services and assisting education and public safety. All of this has been possible because local authorities had the power of renewing the cable franchise deal every ten years or so (as well as approving transfers of ownership as media giants were bought and sold).
A Digital Gold Mine
But now that phone lines can deliver video and data along with voice, Verizon and AT&T envision a digital gold mine, principally by selling wealthy customers TV and movies on demand. It says a lot about their “vision” for our media future that the high-powered fiber-optic lines they are rolling out purportedly to give the public high-speed Internet service (which is what they say to lawmakers) is really about selling us reruns.
The phone lobby has deployed a gaggle of lobbyists and industry-backed groups as part of its campaign to eliminate local authority. They have used a two-pronged approach, pressuring both state and federal lawmakers. Helping to spearhead the phone lobby’s efforts has been Freedom Works, run by former GOP House majority leader Dick Armey. His group has worked with phone lobbyists to pass state laws pre-empting local franchising in such states as Texas, Kansas and Virginia. Telecom industry-backed front groups working for either the phone or cable industry have sprouted up as fast as crabgrass as special interest money is doled out to almost all comers. (See a recent Common Cause report.)
But what the telephone lobby really wants is for Congress to pass a bill this session that would end forever the local franchising concept. The Barton-Rush bill (that’s Bobby Rush, the former “activist” and Democrat who represents Chicago) passed the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee by an overwhelming 27-to-4 majority. Rush provided bi-partisan cover for the GOP-written bill. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, a community center organized by Rep. Rush and his wife, has received a $1 million grant from the SBC/AT&T foundation. Only eleven Democrats and one Republican on the Commerce Committee voted against the bill: Ed Markey, John Dingell, Henry Waxman, Anna Eshoo, Diana DeGette, Lois Capps, Mike Doyle, Tom Allen, Jan Schakowsky, Hilda Solis, Tammy Baldwin and Heather Wilson (R). Fifteen Democrats supported community TV kill-off, including Jay Inslee, Charles A. Gonzalez, and Edolphus Towns. The full House could pass the new legislation as early as next week.
Lobbying over the future of cable and telephone policy has already been a financial blessing to Congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Members of the House and Senate Commerce Committees have received more than $3 million since 2003 from phone and cable companies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And that’s just the tip of the financial largesse we can expect from grateful AT&T and Verizon. (The GOP and lots of Democrats won’t have to worry about their phone, cable or Internet bills for a very long time.)
In the next few weeks, the Senate will take up broadband legislation as well. Democratic Senators John Kerry and Jay Rockefeller have already signaled their support for the plan. Whatever final bill emerges from Congress will ultimately reflect the continuing efforts by the communications industry to free itself from any real oversight and requirements for public service. (There is a provision in the bill that would permit cities to develop their own Wi-Fi networks–removing obstacles the phone and cable industries have placed in their way via another successful political campaign they have organized. But while it gives this tiny opening to communities, ultimately the legislation will close off the country’s principal broadband communications system for the public interest. On Wednesday, the House Commerce Committee also voted down an amendment, sponsored by Ed Markey, to protect the openness of the US Internet, 34-22. There will also be an epic battle in the Senate to secure open Internet safeguards in the bill, the so-called “network neutrality” issue.)
It’s time for progressives to take a stand against the broadband banditry of Congress and the cable-telecom cartel. Any Internet-era telecommunications legislation should insure local control, provide low-income Americans with residential Internet service, protect online privacy, and keep the Internet open and free from the control of big cable and phone companies. Such legislation should also help develop a noncommercial digital commons designed to promote civil society (as opposed to the madcap commercialism that will run rampant on the broadband networks). In that way, we can honor the vision–and the political work–of activists in decades past who strove for a democratically run “community communications” system.