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Cable franchise laws and the public interest

Article published Apr 15, 2007
Tallahassee Democrat
By Andy Opel
MY VIEW

As the Florida Legislature is considering significant changes to the laws that govern cable TV, broadband Internet and other emerging digital media technologies, a review of what is at stake may help us understand this technology puzzle.

The history of media regulation goes back to the Communications Act of 1934, when Congress mandated the Federal Communications Commission to regulate media in the "public interest, convenience and necessity." This phrase has been the source of extensive debate, but the core sentiment stems from the fact that media are not just another commodity. From the First Amendment to the 1930s to the present, political leaders have recognized that the open exchange of information is a central component of a functioning democracy.

A lot has changed since 1934, and this is why any new cable franchise law is a critical decision for the citizens of Florida. Cable has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, delivering video, audio and data services. Now, telecom giants Verizon, Embarq, AT&T and others want to challenge the monopolies granted to cable companies.

The question we need to ask is, who will benefit from the new law, citizens or media corporations?

Promoting “competition” is the buzz word for the proposed cable franchise law. Comcast's local monopoly over the cable market has allowed the company to succeed despite questionable customer service and skyrocketing rates. On average, our monthly cable bills have increased three times the rate of inflation. In a world where computers keep getting better and prices keep dropping, skyrocketing cable and broadband Internet prices have frustrated citizens and politicians like.

With the rapid pace of change in this industry, ensuring competition is not enough; in addition, legislators should fulfill the FCC mandate to protect the public interest. Comcast, Verizon and others are all dependent on public goods to run their businesses. From the public rights of way where they run their cables to the airwaves that carry the satellite waves through our atmosphere, media corporations are generously allowed to use these public resources in exchange for giving something back to the public.

In the past, phone companies were required to “build out” to rural areas as part of their payment for using these public resources. This resulted in phone service to poor and rural areas that may have been overlooked because they were not the right “market demographic.” Any change in franchise law must include build-out requirements and guarantee equal access to the media and communication technologies we all depend on. Similarly, legislators should establish net neutrality as the law of the land. This means that the content of your Web site will be delivered as fast as the media products from the big media companies.

In the 1980s and '90s, cable companies were required to support local access television stations such as government channel 13 in Tallahassee. These PEG stations (public, education, government) are often the only chance local citizens have to get their views on television. The local agreements that maintain these PEG stations must be upheld by any new law and the concept of public access should be expanded in any new legislation. This would include setting aside “public” bandwidth dedicated to digital broadcasting as well as mobile communications.

As we move into the digital era, public access remains a critical component of the payment media companies owe the public. While Internet sites such as YouTube may allow users to post videos, we still need channels and airtime on our televisions dedicated to local politics and culture. As the number of cable channels grows, we should be seeing more opportunities for local television, not fewer PEG stations.

Finally, in an information age, local government must not be prevented from offering broadband Internet as a public utility. St. Cloud, Fla., is one of the few cities in the country to offer free wireless Internet to its residents. This service eliminated the digital divide while creating educational, economic, cultural and political opportunities for the community. More than 77 percent of the households there are registered for the service, and residents are saving over $50 a month per household.

While it is hard to predict what new technologies are around the corner, we do know that information technology is central to our economic, political and cultural life. When the public interest is protected, corporations pay for what they use at the same time that they offer competitive prices for their services. It is time for the Legislature to stand up for the citizens of the state and pass legislation that will serve the needs of the citizens as well as the bottom lines of the media corporations.