Media Politics: Broadband Internet is a Public Resource

by Jonathan Lawson,

Who controls public access to the Internet? When a city lets a private company tear up its streets to plant a fiber optic communications network, what public benefits should the city receive in return? In the eyes of a number of community organizations, the Seattle Office of Cable Communications and the City Council just squandered an important opportunity to weigh in on these questions in the public interest, to save Seattle taxpayers millions of dollars, and to make vast improvements to the communications backbone of the city’s emergency services, government offices, schools and libraries.

Here’s how it happened: In June, the City Council held hearings on whether to allow AT&T, which provides much of Seattle with cable TV and broadband Internet service, to transfer its existing cable franchise to the newly-merged megacorporation AT&T Comcast. These hearings gave the city an opportunity to review AT&T’s service record, and to see whether Seattle citizens are getting adequately compensated by the company in return for the use of public rights of way and monopoly access to many neighborhoods of cable customers.

On June 11, the City Council’s Technology Committee, chaired by councilmember Jim Compton, heard reports and testimony from numerous community groups including SYPP, the Seattle IMC and the Seattle Community Access Network; several were highly critical of AT&T’s stewardship of Seattle’s cable infrastructure, citing the company’s dismal record of broken promises, failed commitments, customer service lapses and other franchise violations.

In his testimony representing the Consumer Federation of America, Seattle attorney Mike Weisman contrasted Seattle's cable franchise with that of the city of Portland--a comparison that makes the Seattle City Council look like real pushovers at the bargaining table. When Portland officials negotiated that city's franchise, said Weissman, they required AT&T to establish a second "shadow network" for the city. Bandwidth on the secure, reliable, publicly-owned network is used by government offices, police and fire departments, libraries, schools, public media, healthcare providers and nonprofits.

The arrangement saves Portland millions of dollars in access fees, and provides a free, high-quality resource to civic institutions, the true value of which surely cannot be measured. Other municipalities around the country—including Tacoma and King County (excluding Seattle) also have had publicly-owned broadband networks set up as a condition of franchise. Why shouldn’t Seattle have such a network, too?

The OCC, while acknowledging many of AT&Ts shortcomings, nevertheless recommended approving the franchise transfer without imposing conditions or penalities, which the Technology Committee did, on June 19. Weisman comments that the OCC sees itself as a partner to the city’s corporate cable franchisees, rather than as a regulatory body. Resultingly, Seattle has historically asked very little in terms of public benefits, and the city with the high-tech reputation wil continue to fall behind its regional counterparts in its broadband infrastructure.

If Seattle community activists can succeed in forcing the City Council and the OCC to be stronger public advocates when the AT&T/Comcast franchise expires in 2004, AT&T is likely to put up a strong fight against proposed public dividends. While Portland negotiators got a lot out of their franchise negotiations with AT&T, AT&T gave as good as they got, challenging in court the city’s right to impose certain demands on them as a condition of franchise. The case, and its direct and indirect results, have shaped the regulatory backdrop for any future negotiations.

In the 1999 case AT&T vs. Portland, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cable Internet is not a “cable service,” meaning that local governments canot force cable franchisees to open their resources to competing service providers. More importantly, however, the court classified cable Internet as a “telecommunications service”—a two-way communications system like a telephone network. Because of the tremendous importance of communications networks for a broad range of public communications uses (personal communications, media, education, entertainment, government operations, emergency services etc.), Telecommunications services are subject to open-access and other regulations administered by the FCC. By placing cable Internet in this category, the 9th Circuit court's Portland decision was a strong confirmation that the service should be protected from commercial domination; that open access protections are demanded by the public interest.

However, the FCC, under current chair Michael Powell, has not shared the court’s emphasis on protecting the public interest—in fact, he has openly derided the very idea of a public interest, calling it "about as empty a vessel as you can accord a regulatory agency." In a declaratory ruling this March, Powell announced that the FCC would now consider cable Internet to be an “information service” rather than a telecommunications service, entirely snubbing the 9th Circuit Court’s Portland ruling. The category “information service” had previously been used primarily to describe 900 telephone numbers and the like, not two-way communications systems, but the categorization allows the FCC to ignore public interest regulatory obligations, and allows cable broadband providers like AT&T to block rival ISPs, and even selectively sideline or filter particular slices of Internet content.

If that sounds like an abridgement of freedom Americans wouldn’t stand for, look around—the legal groundwork has already been laid—and by rubber-stamping the AT&T Comcast franchise transfer, the City Council has demonstrated which side they’re currently taking in this battle between corporate and community control of public communications resources.

Community media activists like Weisman look to the upcoming franchise renegotiations (to be completed in 2004 but starting next year) as the city’s next opportunity to get a better deal. However, few are optimistic that the city will be any more willing to turn the screws on AT&T Comcast than they were this month.With regulatory authority abdicated by the FCC, the Seattle OCC and the City Council, who has the watchdog role? “The public,” answers Weisman, “and it’s a terrible role for the public to have to bear… The city’s stewardship of our digital heritage has been abyssmal; people should hold their elected officials responsible for doing nothing.”

article originally published at .
The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey