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.