August 14, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Take back the wires
By Annalee Newitz
Jeffrey Chester has seen the future of media, and it isn't pretty. "Based on what the government is doing right now with media deregulation, I could imagine a city like San Francisco where the newspapers, television stations, and broadband Internet providers are all owned by the same company," he said.
Executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Center for Digital Democracy, Chester visited the city last week as part of a nationwide tour to raise awareness about recent Federal Communications Commission decisions that threaten to further centralize media ownership and crush consumer choice in the market for broadband Internet service.
San Francisco has become a hot spot in the media-deregulation wars because the Board of Supervisors is set to renegotiate the city's cable franchise agreement with Comcast, which bought out AT&T's cable system, during the next year (see "High Wireless Act," 6/12/02).
It's likely the city will be one of the first municipalities affected by a March "declaratory ruling statement" from the FCC that effectively deregulates Internet broadband by excluding competing service providers from using cable broadband networks owned by other companies.
Denise Brady, executive director of the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services in San Francisco, said she's worried the new FCC regulations will compromise the city's ability to regulate Internet service.
Jerry Threet, aide to Sup. Jake McGoldrick, said the FCC's recent moves don't bode well for the city's efforts to get better benefits for the public under the franchise agreement. "That's a worrisome development," he told us.
The supervisors are trying to get the best deal possible including higher franchise fees and more funding and channel space for public, educational, and government programming Threet said, adding that they also want to ensure Comcast makes it possible for other interests, possibly even the city, to provide Internet access to residents so the corporation doesn't have a monopoly on the service.
If the Comcast/AT&T merger goes through in September as expected, the board will decide then whether the city needs to take legal action to get those improvements and protections.
Anti-deregulation groups such as the CDD argue that the FCC needs to adopt "open access" regulations, which stipulate that broadband wires must be made available to competing services. For example, if AT&T lays broadband wires in San Francisco, open-access regulations would mean that the company couldn't monopolize the use of those wires; other companies would be allowed to offer services on the wires too. That way, consumers would have a choice.
Within the next six months, the federal appeals court in San Francisco will hear an appeal of the March FCC deregulation ruling brought by the CDD, the American Civil Liberties Union, and online bookstore Amazon.com. The ACLU, which recently released a study demonstrating that there is no technological barrier to enforcing open-access regulations, got involved in the fight because deregulation could mean cable companies could favor certain kinds of media content over others. If, for instance, AT&T made a deal with CNN, AT&T broadband customers might be able to download CNN news on the Web far more quickly than news from alternative outlets.
Companies like Amazon.com also worry that vendor deals with cable companies could mean their customers would be redirected to cable partners. You might type "amazon.com" into your browser, but if your broadband provider had a partnership with Barnes and Noble, its system would direct you to the Barnes and Noble Web site first.
Broadband deregulation would allow cable companies to squeeze out competition in more areas than simple broadband service. They would become de facto content regulators too, making it even more difficult for alternative voices to get heard over the Internet.
Despite the new technologies involved, the broadband wars are bringing up issues that have plagued the media industry since Marconi. "This is basically a fight over free speech," Chester said. "And it's also an attempt by the old media to exert control over a new medium."
Savannah Blackwell contributed to this report. E-mail Annalee Newitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.