Media Politics: Sims Seeks Short-Term Gains with Cable Proposal

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by Jonathan Lawson

King County is set to cut a bad deal with AT&T when it should be trying to increase public access to high-speed, low-cost broadband.

With its current agreement allowing AT&T Comcast's local cable franchise set to expire in two years, the King County government could be planning ahead to negotiate a better deal from the cable provider, providing increased public benefits in return for the lucrative franchise. Instead, County Executive Ron Sims has the County Council poised to lock the jurisdiction into a bad deal through 2008, without meaningful public process.

Cable franchises are legal agreements granting private companies the right to use public rights-of-way to deliver cable service to local customers. In return, cable companies make a payment to the local government, and may also be required to dedicate resources to public benefits. King County's franchise agreements are already stronger than many (including Seattle's), but Sims' plan could change that.

While the cash-strapped government of King County would stand to gain $1 to $1.5 million in the proposed three-year extension deal, county residents would lose some benefits already granted by the existing franchise. The deal calls for giving up one or two of the public-use cable channels currently reserved for governmental, educational and public access programming, as well as the equivalent of 15 channels of broadband network capacity, currently allocated but unused.

The Council has a history of at least giving the appearance of hard-nosed public advocates in previous franchise negotiations with AT&T. The council voted twice to reject transfers of the franchise (when TCI became part of AT&T in 1999, and again last year when AT&T merged with Comcast), although eventually approving the tranfers in both cases. King County also negotiated into its franchise a publicly-owned broadband network, a perk which Seattle and other local cities have gone without.

Ron Sims sounded like a strong advocate for citizens' communication when, in a 1999 New York Times interview, he called the cable franchise "a pipe for critically important information," adding that "no one should be allowed to monopolize it." But like other local politicians in both the city and county governments, Sims has been slow to acknowledge that the existing franchise system effectively locks in monopolies with little meaningful public oversight and a reduction in public benefits.

Advocates for greater public access to communiucations technology are understandably steamed at the apparently perfunctory way the council is attempting to extend the franchise while rolling back its public benefits. Seattle attorney Mike Weisman charges that despite Sims' rhetoric, "the County has never supported public access. The current franchise calls for a public access mobile van and connection to the County s fiber optic Internet; we ve never seen it. King County has never contributed to funding for community technology centers or public access studios in the County."

Weisman is trying to garner public support for an alternate plan which would extend the franchise for a single year

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