Broadband Briefings


Published by NetAction Issue No. 5 December 2, 1999
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IN THIS ISSUE:

Broadband Bombast
About Broadband Briefings

Broadband Bombast

Impassioned rhetoric is common in debates over public policy, but the truly outrageous hyperbole has generally been reserved for issues that intersect with religious beliefs. That's why the most extreme examples of self-righteous pontification surface in debates over issues like school prayer, evolution, sexual orientation, reproduction, and the death penalty. For many people, these are moral issues grounded in deep-seated belief systems. And since we live in a society that officially tolerates religious freedom, differing belief systems tend to spill over into the political arena. Inevitably, claims get staked to the moral high ground.

With some issues, this is understandable. But it's utter nonsense in a public policy debate over deployment of cable broadband. Unfortunately, that didn't stop Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) from claiming a "moral victory" for proponents of "open access."

In an astonishing speech which he delivered at a November 16, 1999 conference hosted by the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Cooper asserted that "open access" is the only "moral" position on cable broadband and compared those of us who disagreed with his position to Nazis.

Cable broadband as a moral issue? Get real! The debate over cable access is not a subject for sermons.

Cooper's reference to Winston Churchill and the Battle of Britain, and his assertion that "open access" is the only "moral" position on cable broadband, trivialize this century's most significant military conflict, disrespects the victims of the Nazi holocaust and insults the men and women who fought -- and in some cases died -- to defeat fascism.

How can anyone take this seriously?

If Cooper is correct, Hitler must be rolling over in his grave at the thought that this writer, a descendant of Polish Jews, is being lumped with Nazis. And imagine how God must feel about an eleventh Commandment: "Thou Shalt Not Deny Thy Competitors Access to Thine Cable." What's next? Will opponents of forced access be put us on trial in Nuremberg?

Cooper's attempt to claim the moral high ground in the debate over broadband access is counterproductive to developing good public policy.

Will it help local officials decide what's best for their community? Only if they are in the habit of consulting the Bible on matters of public policy. Will it help consumers decide what's best for their own needs? Don't count on it. This sort of self-righteous posturing just turns people off.

It also demeans the legitimacy of public policy issues that do have a compelling moral component -- issues like ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions, combating hunger and homelessness, protecting women and children from domestic violence and sexual exploitation. In a world that is literally overwhelmed with real life-and-death struggles, claiming moral superiority on an issue like broadband access is absurd.

Are there lives at stake? Does the future of the free world depend on the outcome of the debate over broadband access? Of course not. So why is Cooper pushing the envelope on this issue?

Because without this mantle of moral superiority, nothing separates the public interest proponents of "open access" from their private sector allies, like America Online (AOL), GTE, and the Bell monopolies. Allies with histories of poor service and recurring cycles of marketing abuse. Allies that have fought arduously to avoid opening their own networks, in defiance of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Allies that have censored their Internet customers, abused their trust and violated their privacy.

It's understandable that public interest proponents of mandated access would want to distance themselves from corporate allies with track records like this. But claiming to have the only moral position raises the level of rhetoric without advancing the public's understanding of the issues. This isn't going to help consumers or policymakers.

Moreover, despite Cooper's claim of success, only a handful of cities have actually adopted regulations that require cable franchise operators to open their networks to competitors. Opponents of forced access point out that thousands of municipalities have opted not to adopt such a policy. Many local officials are following the Federal Communications Commission's lead and adopting a "wait-and-see" approach.

It is increasingly apparent that the current controversy over cable Internet access will prove to be short-lived, as NetAction predicted in our September, 1999 White Paper.

There is overwhelming evidence that competition is working. SBC plans to spend $6 billion to make DSL service available to more than 60 million consumers. America Online has invested $1.5 billion in Hughes Electronics in order to offer Internet access via satellite. AT&T has spent more than $140 billion to purchase cable companies and will spend billions more to upgrade the systems to offer broadband Internet access.

Consider just a few of the developments that have occurred in the past month:

Bell Atlantic, Qwest, U.S. West and Bell South have also made announcements within the past month regarding plans to expand high-speed Internet services. A comprehensive report of developments in the high-speed Internet market this year can be found at the Hands Off the Internet web site.

In a recent Los Angeles Times column, Robert W. Hahn, director of the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies compared the emerging competitive market in the U.S. to developments in Canada, which imposed "open access" requirements on cable operators in 1996. According to Hahn, it took Canadian regulators three years to agree on rules for mandated access, and an agreement on rates isn't expected until sometime next year.

"Open access" may look appealing from the moral high ground, but when you get back down to earth the perspective is considerably different. In Sacramento, California, the Municipal Cable Commission recently rejected mandated access despite an intense lobbying effort by Pacific Bell. In his report to the Commission, Executive Director Rich Esposto concluded that the access debate was, "at its core a transient $10 issue."

Why? Because $10 is the added cost an AOL customer incurs to access AOL via @Home over a cable broadband connection. And industry observers are predicting that cable operators will open their facilities when the market begins to mature.

When you get past the rhetoric, the debate over broadband access is a lobbying campaign pitting huge corporations against other huge corporations. It's not the Battle of Britain. So how much of a "moral victory" can the proponents of forced access claim over a "transient $10 issue?"


About Broadband Briefings

Broadband Briefings is a free electronic newsletter, published by NetAction to promote policies that encourage rapid and widespread deployment of high-speed Internet access. NetAction is a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting use of the Internet for grassroots citizen action, and to educating the public, policycmakers, and the media about technology policy issues.

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