STEVENS BILL UPDATE: Saving Community Access TV and Public’s Access to Video “Motion-Media
Summary: August 8, 2006—Steven's Rewrite of Telecommunications Franchising Rules Temporarily Stalled. Legislation impacting Community Access TV, the Internet, and public access to media services slows in Washington despite best efforts of phone companies and their politician allies.
With Washington now in summer recess a vote on Sen. Stevens' (R-Alaska) telecommunications broadband/franchising bill will not take place before September—and the controversial legislation could be delayed again until after November elections.
On June 28, 2006, the Senate Commerce Committee voted to approve the 'Communications, Consumer's Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act' (S.2686) by a vote of 15-7. The bill is potentially the most important telecommunications policy rewrite since the 1996 Telecommunications Act—and if passed it could have a devastating impact on the public's access to the media, and on the kinds of media the public sees and hears.
In an ominous move Sen. Steven's renamed the Senate's S.2686 bill HR.5252—this legislative maneuver will fast track the bill and eliminate the need, following a Senate vote, for it be reviewed by the House of Representatives before it is sent for 'conferencing' with the Houses' companion COPE bill.
A sticking point for the bill has been demands that the bill include Net Neutrality provisions—thereby preventing the phone companies from controlling the content traveling through their broadband cables. But the bill is no less damaging in other ways, including the absence of universal service requirements—thereby allowing the phone companies to offer services to only the most profitable markets while 'redlining' those they deem less profitable.
Sen. Ensign (R-Nevada)—who has also been pushing the bill—admitted on C-SPAN the bill probably won't pass unless an expansion of the Universal Service Fund (USF) is added. The USF provides money to bring telecommunication services to rural communities.
The good news at the moment is that in its present form the bill provides support for Public, Educational, and Governmental (PEG) TV—and among the bill's over one hundred amendments are provisions for additional Low-Power-FM (LPFM) radio stations. With the backing of groups as diverse as the Christian Coalition, Free Press and Common Cause, the LPFM amendment was introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
However, LPFM and Community Access TV are not out of the woods yet—almost anything can happen during the 'conference' session to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill. These sessions take place behind closed doors, and bills can be re-written during the process. Also, with the Stevens' bill stalled in the Senate there is danger the bill will be stripped down—with single damaging features from it attached to other legislation.
To take action on the Stevens' bill readers can send electronic letters to their Senators at saveaccess.org/takeaction. The Saveaccess site also supports a "Spank Your Rep." letter campaign to Congressional Representatives who voted for the Houses' COPE Act—asking them, "what were you thinking?"
Nationally, hundreds of thousands of letters voicing opposition to the bill have been sent to elected representatives through sites operated by Common Cause ( link to www.commoncause.org), and saveaccess (www.saveaccess.org), among others. These efforts have been successful in generating scrutiny of the bill's implications—and have successfully supported advocacy for the inclusion of PEG TV and LPFM amendments.
However, to prevent a deepening of the digital-divide and destruction of the Internet as we know it increased public mobilization on the issue must occur.
Other moves afoot on this issue include the possible future involvement of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC is reportedly considering two potential vehicles for changing the current franchising system—thereby introducing conditions similar to those proposed in the House and Senate bills. The FCC could change the definition of what 'video services' are—thereby exempting phone companies from video franchising. Or it could move to change the way municipalities "review cable franchises" (Drew Clark. National Journal—August 7, 2006)
It's been over twelve months since the Video Choice Act of 2005 and the Ensign-McCain bill appeared on the legislative horizon in Washington—bringing with them the possibility of a major corporation-friendly re-write of American telecommunications law. These bills threatened to dismantle the long established local telecommunications franchising system; a system which for decades has allowed local communities to set the standards for telecommunications service in their area—and ensured that the public has universal access to the telecommunication services on offer.
The Video Choice Act and Ensign-McCain made no headway in Washington, but in their wake has came a barrage of bills crossing similar legislative terrain—BITS I and II, the COPE Act, and recently the Senate 'Communications, Consumer's Choice and Broadband Deployment Act' (S.5252). The driving force behind all this legislation is the huge profits phone companies expect to reap by introducing broadband Internet-based video services.
For most of us, the viewing of 'motion-media' is still centered on cable TV, broadcast TV, and the circulation of physical 'hard-copy' DVDs and videotapes. But this is changing, and the last two or three years have witnessed an explosion of video-blogging, motion-media on demand, and video digital distribution. Media analyst Andrew Blau argues the Internet of today is about to undergo a transformation similar to the one it underwent in the early 1990s—he writes, "video on the Internet today is where text was in the early '90's—about to experience a huge jump in terms of sophistication of use and widespread accessibility" (NAMAC 2004)
With cable TV companies already providing 'triple play' services (video, voice, and data/Internet) the phone companies want a piece of this emerging new digital motion-media ecology. However, they don't want to play by the local franchising rules that have governed the operation of cable TV—rules that have ensured that cable TV operators have some measure of accountability to the local communities in which they operate.
The stakes in the legislative battle are huge—huge for the phone companies as they greedily eye the possibility of making billions by providing broadband services without the 'interference' of local franchising. And huge too for the public, because without effective franchising controls in place the phone companies will be able to selectively provide service to those areas they deem to be most profitable—while excluding low income and rural communities.
The stakes are huge too if the phone companies can fend off the inclusion of Net Neutrality rules—and thereby become the content-gatekeepers for everything that travels through their Internet cables. With a proliferation of digital content—from individual video-bloggs to online Hollywood movies—the big bucks of the future may go to those who control the channels for media distribution, and not to the ones who make media.
The absence of Net Neutrality provisions has been the strongest rallying-call in opposition to the Stevens bill. An amendment to the bill supporting Net Neutrality was defeated in an 11-11 vote—leading one commentator to sarcastically write, "stunning development on Capitol Hill: public nearly wins!" (Jonathan Rintels. Huffington Post—June 30, 2006).
Paving the way for the bill is a huge telco-hired lobbying, advertising, and PR operation. Also, AT&T's corporate political action committee gave $1.3 million to candidates during the 2005-2006 election cycle—most of it going to the Republicans who control congress (Jeremy Pelofsky. Reuters—June 28, 2006).
Stevens has aggressively sought to bring corporate control to all aspects of the media. In 2005 he was the sponsor of a bill aimed at preventing municipalities from offering public wifi services. Not surprisingly Stevens is a huge beneficiary of corporate media money—Rupert Murdock's News Corporation is the leading contributor to his political war-chest, closely followed by contributions from telcos Verizon and AT&T.
The telcos claim they have no plans to introduce pay-as-you-go Internet access, or plans to slow the content of their competitors. "But they say they must be free to manage their networks to keep the growing information and entertainment demands from clogging the pipes and free to provide the extra security and capacity necessary for high-bandwidth services like streaming video," writes John Eggerton in the industry journal Broadcasting and Cable (August 1, 2006).
Seeking to rally support for their agenda among political conservatives, the always devious PR hacks at AT&T are claiming that Net Neutrality would usher in a torrent of family-inappropriate Internet content. What is most telling "is how AT&T is willing to act as Ma Censor, and readily seek to place a range of content off-limits. Today, they are offering to block what many parents would likely agree is disturbing content. But tomorrow, they would seek to block all kinds of programming necessary for a vibrant and informed democracy," writes Jeff Chester (Digital Destiny—July 15, 2006).
Steven's push to silence critics of the bill was not helped by his bizarre outburst during Commerce Committee hearings. The Internet is "not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes," said an incoherent Stevens. These nonsensical comments—from a man seeking the shape the future of the Internet—were picked up and ridiculed before nationwide audiences by comedian talk show host Jon Stewart (see Daily Show excerpt on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=DClkE64nFDY)
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