Media Politics: Could Your Cable be doing More?

by Jonathan Lawson,

Some seventy percent of Americans now get their television through cable, rather than over the public airwaves. An increasing number of us also use our cable connections for broadband Internet services, instead of choosing telephone-based dialup or DSL connections. Many observers agree that cable will be the dominant medium for Internet access within a few years, as it is now for television. The fat pipelines of many cities' cable infrastructure already has the capability to carry much more information than it currently does. This of course could include extra channels--hey Comcast, how about bundling in Free Speech TV, or al-Jazeera, or more public access channels? Beyond that, additional services such as home security systems and even voice telephony are not only possible, they're being bundled into competitively-priced cable service packages right now. If you don't have access to all these services, your cable could be doing more.

Media and technology activists in Seattle think that our cable could be doing a lot more--and that the way to make it happen is to exert more public control over the process by which cable programming enters our homes. On October 25 in Seattle, the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (cpsr.org) offers a day-long workshop called "Getting the Technology you Deserve," advancing the idea that broadband cable technology can and should serve the public much more richly than it does now. Speakers include Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America and Dirk Koning of the Alliance for Communications Democracy, as well as local public access representatives and technology experts. State Representative John McCoy, Seattle City Councilmember Licata and other local officials will also attend; it's local government which has the most direct influence over cable TV and Internet service.

Why local, and not federal government? Unlike radio and broadcast TV, cable service is effectively legislated at the local as well as national level. Cable companies must negotiate local franchise agreements with local governments in order to provide service to homes and businesses. Seattle, for example, has franchise deals with Comcast and Millennium, both of which will be renegotiated in 2004. Under these agreements, the cable companies get the right to lay their cable in public rights-of-way for their semi-monopoly access to a large customer pool. What local communities get back in return varies widely from place to place, often dependent upon the imagination and determination of local government negotiators.

For example, King County benefits from a high-speed broadband network connecting its government, public safety, library and school facilities; the network is leased by King County, and provided by Comcast as a condition of its franchise agreement. While ratepayers utlimately absorb the cost of this network, the arrangement ultimately saves county taxpayers a lot of money and guarantees access to high-quality communication services. Seattle has no such system--simply because the city has never pushed for one in its Comcast contract. The same is true of other public benefits which other municipalities have demanded from cable providers, including negotiated rate caps, improved public access television facilities, open access guarantees and more.

Organizers of the Oct. 25 workshop, including attorney Mike Weisman, hope that participants will leave the day with a greater sense of the importance of local technology policy and the skills to pursue better public access to Internet and cable technology through community organizing.

A longer-term goal for Weisman and other local community technology activists is the creation of a publicly-owned cable broadband utility in Seattle, on the model of Tacoma's Click Network. Click is owned by Tacoma Power, the city's public power utility whose operating philosophy is based on the idea that "public ownership and local control would give [citizens] a higher caliber of services as well as the ability to control those services." The system offers the same bells and whistles as its private competitors, but with a greater emphasis on cultural cable programming. Operated as a nonprofit, Click's earnings remain in the local community, and its lower prices make high-speed Internet access available to more lower-income households.

While Seattle's City Council gave a theoretical nod to exploring the idea of a public communications utility in a 1999 resolution, there has been little movement since then. More public pressure, and perhaps political change, will be needed to counter the lobbying power of cable giants such as Comcast, and make sure that we have the best technology access we can get.

Getting the Technology You Deserve begins at 8:30am Saturday, Oct. 25 at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center in Discovery Park. Check cpsr.org for details.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey