A chance to modernize telecommunications

Posted by Mitchell - May 2, 2005 (entry 304)

Originally published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Monday, May 2, 2005

A chance to modernize telecommunications


Behind closed doors, Congress has already started rewriting one of the most important pieces of legislation you may never have heard of.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act, supported by both Bill Clinton and Newt Gringrich, was supposed to modernize U.S. telecommunications and broadcasting industries, foster competition and expand consumer choice.

Nearly 10 years later, after hundreds of thousands lost their jobs in the telecom/Internet bust and thousands more lost their life savings, Congress is ready to try again.

Now is the time to correct the mistakes in policy and the mistakes in the process that doomed the 1996 act.

Here's what Congress should do:

  • Give up trying to saddle broadcasters with obligations to serve the public interest. The model of giving broadcasters free, exclusive licenses to use the "public airwaves" in exchange for serving the public interest has been irretrievably broken for decades.

  • Instead, Congress should revise the "free" and "exclusive" parts of that bargain, replacing free broadcasting licenses with annual charges, based on gross revenue, and replacing exclusive licenses with a system of spectrum sharing that allows low-power uses such as WiFi, WiMax or community radio to use the airwaves to the maximum extent possible without creating interference.

  • Immediately end broadcasting on UHF TV channels 60 through 69. Those channels are urgently needed for public safety communications, and the costs of relocating existing licensees can be covered by new spectrum auctions.

  • Explicitly allow municipalities to create wholesale broadband networks, forbidding states from giving in to cable and telco lobbyists with legislation that protects them from municipal-sponsored competition.

  • End the distinction between "telecommunication" and "information services" that currently encourages phone companies to evade local regulation of their proposed TV services and cable companies to evade regulations of their proposed telephone services.

  • Strike a balance between encouraging innovation and allowing local and state governments to maintain existing revenue streams. Local telephone and cable taxes support emergency communication and public safety operations, and could support vitally needed community-based media.

  • Most important in sharp contrast to the closed-door process that produced the 1996 act, Congress should not write a single line of legislative code until well-publicized public hearings are held in all four of the nation's time zones.

    Mainstream media can do their part, too. Newspapers, local TV stations and national news organizations should:

  • Shine a spotlight on the process of drafting new rules for the broadcasting, telecommunications and information industries.

  • Describe the legislative agendas of each major industry group -- broadcast, cable, telephone and media -- and how they would affect consumers and citizens, if adopted.

  • Take a long look at the scandalous decline of broadband in this country compared with other nations. Policy-makers and corporate executives need to be asked repeatedly, how far behind Korea and Canada are we willing to fall?

  • Tell readers and viewers that falling behind in broadband means reduced job opportunities tomorrow and reduced living standards for our grandchildren the day after tomorrow.

    Voters and consumers have a role to play, too:

  • You should ask your local news providers how much they profit from the regulatory status quo, especially during election cycles. Remind them to consider their long-range impact on society, not just next quarter's profits.

  • You should tell your elected officials from Congress to city hall that legislation governing the TV, cable and Internet industries is important and remind them to represent our families, not just media conglomerates.

    Changes to the 1996 Telecomm Act will have huge ripple effects on our economy, on education, health care, public safety and on the fundamentals of democratic self-government itself.

    The debate on those changes should open to us all.

    Bart Preecs is the chairman of the Edmonds Community Technology Advisory Board. The opinions expressed are his own.

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