Published on Save Access (

Mapping a Public Interest Future

By saveaccess
Created 05/17/2007 - 5:45pm

This week word came that the Grand Rapids Media Center (GRMC) is being forced to reduce operating hours, a casualty of the Michigan State Video Franchise passed last year. The GRMC is one of the most celebrated community media centers (and public access centers) in the country, this news resonates for many and is a harbinger of more bad days to come. State Bills passed in Iowa, Florida and elsewhere are even more destructive, eliminating all funding for public, educational and governmental (PEG) channels and facilities.

I remember the late Dirk Koning (founder of GRMC) always stressing the need for local media activists to map the entire communications infrastructure of their community - to ascertain what existed, what was missing and what could be possible. The tendency now to celebrate models like ConnectKentucky for similar mapping in regards to broadband implementation is a misnomer. For Dirk, community mapping was about local control and accountability - leveraging community needs and vision against available resources and knowing what to organize for next. For projects like ConnectKy - the end result is often a state subsidized roll-out that benefits telcoms while giving local communities little or no say over the eventual outcome, much less discuss their needs for local public interest set-asides. This is one reason Verizon is quoted as supporting the ConnectKy model. The states pay to map existing infrastructures (often that of cable competitors), then create state subsidies for corporations, like Verizon or AT&T, to fill in the blanks or go head to head with the cable companies in urban areas. Not that these initiatives don't deliver cable tv and broadband (or the corporate grail - triple play) to those previously without it, but as "public/private" initiatives, the public interest obligations are too often stripped out ("consumer/private" would be a more apt description).

A pending NY State Franchise bill combines a video franchise with a broadband initiative, it deserves a little detail since it is an aberration in many ways - but some necessary background first. With about 11 state franchise bills passed and about 13 more in process and looking bad - one could say with some confidence that we're now witnessing the demise of PEG in the next ten years for most of the country (watch Democracy Now while you still can - you may be soon missing it). As we whine in the Media Democracy movement about the loss of local media and minority produced media, we must acknowledge we are doing nothing to save the local media infrastructure that is actually that best expression of those principles. More hours of television are produced by minorities and women via public access centers than by all the corporate media combined, in fact the numbers are more like ten-fold, perhaps even a hundred-fold. As for local media, nothing is more localized and community based that public access TV, and again the corporate locals pale in comparison to hourly coverage of local issues and voices.

The way state video franchising is playing out nationally goes like this; AT&T and Verizon dump a bill on a paid legislative sponsor and sell it to the public via their astroturfs under the auspices of "competition = lower prices". These bills quickly gain momentum and PEGs and municipal organizations fight to get to the negotiating table only to discover that every lobbyist in the state is already working for the telcos. Cable companies feign opposition until they get their cut - then flip positions - predictably. The only union in the game, the CWA, will only get jobs if the telcos win (cable is non-union) - hence their support for state bills that are frequently a contradiction of the CWA National's stated principles and that of their "speedmatters" campaign (strong buildout provisions, PEG support and net neutrality lite).

So now we have the NY bill, the Omnibus Telecommunications Reform Act of 2007 [1], sponsored by Assemblyman Brodsky with the support of the CWA. The bill creates a statewide broadband authority with its own universal service fund to ensure broadband build-out throughout largely rural NY state (with echoes of ConnectKy). It creates a statewide video franchise - that so far is the most progressive in the country in regards to PEG support. It has a net neutrality provision - given the approval of the 'save the internet' folks. The bill also has strong build-out provisions - to ensure rural access and protect against urban redlining. Public interest organizations (including PEG) have been invited to provide input since the onset - a unique and rare occurrence. This all sounds great, and it actually mostly is, but given the legislation in the rest of country (and the comments above), one can't help but feel this is an unseen twilight zone episode waiting to unravel a new unexpected morality twist.

There are down sides to the bill of course, all state franchises by definition usurp local municipal control and authority. This includes direct remedies to consumer complaints, oversight against redlining (local communities are best informed to make these determinations), the ability to negotiate additional services (like iNets) and most significantly the ability to revoke franchises when conditions merit it. The NY bill protects some aspects of local oversight, but short of protracted legal action, the ultimate control lies with the appointed state body of the Public Service Commission (PSC). Much like the FCC, these appointed bodies are unpredictable wild cards from state to state, accountable first to their political and corporate patrons, and then later, perhaps to the public. We don't yet have the regulatory language necessary to ensure that these appointed bodies be held accountable to detailed public interest obligations, and without that, there are no assurances that any 'good' legislative language will survive PSC interpretation (suggestions welcome).

Already nearly every Albany lobbyist counts Verizon as a client and though they have not yet taken their scissors to this bill some fingerprints are already visible in the margins. But what passes out of the assembly committee and through the republican dominated senate could be something else entirely. Telecom/cable is big money politics, and in NY state that alone is cause for concern. Guarded optimism may be an understatement - yet we are trying to be hopeful.

This past Tuesday, a number of public interest organizations (consumers union, freepress, citizen action, common cause, nypirg) stuck their necks out and stood with Brodsky and the CWA in support of the current bill at a capital press conference. I applaud all their efforts, each have played a part in helping to shape a bill far better than what we're seeing anywhere else. We need good models that we can rally behind - and more importantly we need unity in principles, purpose and action. For too long we have allowed our efforts to be driven by our own singular campaign interests, often neglecting those of our natural allies, and unfortunately failing to hold the line in the end. Let's use this bill to set a new standard of what's possible, let's make New York a united battleground for a communications policy of the public interest.

We still have a ways to go - we need language that leverages state power for community benefit, deferring to local authority rather than usurping that authority. We need 'local control', 'home rule', 'PEG', 'net neutrality' and 'build-out' to resonate as the new mantras - and not the deceptive 'more competition' and 'lower prices' PR line of the astroturfs. If we can craft this, gain broad municipal support and not break ranks - we may have the right bill in the right time.

- by saveaccess (michael)

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