|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 4||November 9, 1999|
On a recent evening in the predominantly Latino working class city of Pacoima in Los Angeles County, there was a lot of talk about "open access" and how important it was to closing the digital divide. The occasion was a meeting of the Los Angeles City Council's Information Technology and General Services Committee, which has been grappling with the issue for some time. Although the City's Information Technology Agency has recommended against requiring "open access" at this time, the Committee has not yet prepared its own recommendation for the full City Council. Proponents of forced access showed up with badged declaring "Acceso Libre."
The digital divide is a valid concern in Pacoima and numerous other predominantly minority communities around the country. Studies have consistently shown that fewer blacks and Latinos are using the Internet. Closing this gap is a very important public policy goal, since access to information and technology are crucial to creating new economic opportunities.
But imposing an "open access" requirement on cable broadband deployment isn't going to close the digital divide in Pacoima or anywhere else. The digital divide isn't about lack of access to high-speed technology, it's about lack of access to technology, period. And while there seem to be some cultural aspects to technology use, it's mostly an economic problem. We have a digital divide because people who have to struggle to come up with the rent money every month don't buy computers.
And without a computer, it doesn't make a whit of difference whether it takes five seconds, five minutes, or five hours to download streaming video. It doesn't make a whit of difference whether you have to pay an extra $10 to use America Online with AT&T's cable modem. It doesn't make a whit of difference whether cable modem providers serve your community or not. Without a computer, it doesn't make a whit of difference whether access is open, closed, sideways, or upside down. Forcing cable providers to open their networks to their competitors won't put computers in the homes of families that can't afford them.
What it will do, as we've seen in Portland and other communities, is delay broadband deployment, thwart competition and guarantee full employment for lawyers. If the goal is to ensure rapid and widespread deployment of affordable high-speed Internet access and increase consumer choice, local officials would be wise to reject forced access.
That doesn't mean they should ignore the very real problem of the digital divide. Local officials can play an important role in bridging this gap by making sure computers with Internet access are available in all public schools and libraries, and by asking the cable companies, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the phone companies that do business in their community to provide financial support for local technology centers and technology training programs. This is the key to opening up new economic opportunities and closing the digital divide.
The Los Angeles Information Technology Agency's report and recommendations are at: http://www.ci.la.ca.us/ita/broadbnd.pdf.
The judges who listened to oral arguments in Portland last week seemed to be cutting to the heart of the heated debate over cable broadband access by asking whether high-speed Internet access was a telecommunications service or a cable service. The answer to that question just might determine whether Portland or AT&T prevails in the dispute over that city's requirement that AT&T allow competitors access to its cable broadband network. But it's also possible that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal will ultimately conclude that cable broadband is neither a telecommunications service nor a cable service.
High-speed Internet access over cable is possible because technology is converging. Cable is no longer just for watching television. The telephone is no longer just for making phone calls. The problem is, there are separate and quite distinct laws and regulations governing these technologies. The FCC has not yet determined whether cable broadband Internet service is a cable service subject to Section 602(6) of the Communications Act, or an advanced telecommunications service subject to Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. And it seems as if nearly everyone involved in the debate has a different opinion as to which set of laws and regulations should be applied to cable broadband.
Proponents of forced access want to regulate broadband like cable, and their dire predictions about what will happen to the Internet if AT&T prevails are based on their past experiences with the cable television industry and to AT&T's past monopoly of telecommunications services.
Those who prefer to allow competition to work, including NetAction, are looking at different factors. In NetAction's case, these factors include cable broadband's potential for promoting competition in local phone service, our past experiences with the once heavily regulated telecommunications industry, and a strong inclination to avoid a city-by-city patchwork of regulations that will do little more than slow the deployment of broadband and allow local phone monopolies to stall competition for a few more years.
We're already seeing some of the problems with local regulation of cable broadband. Portland and Broward County are embroiled in legal skirmishes, California and Massachusetts could wind up with costly ballot initiatives, Miami, St. Louis, San Francisco, Atlanta and many other communities have imposed conflicting rules on their local cable providers.
What this means for consumers is that in some communities -- like Lakewood, California -- cable broadband will be rolled out rapidly, while in other communities -- like Portland -- deployment is on hold indefinitely.
Local franchise authorities and proponents of forced access might want to ask themselves whether this is really the best way to ensure that affordable high-speed Internet access is available as soon as possible to everyone who wants it. We certainly don't think so.
NetAction's position on cable broadband deployment is outlined in some detail in comments filed recently in response to a Request for Information issued by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. When the supervisors approved the transfer of TCI's cable franchise to AT&T, they opted not to impose forced access and indicated they would review the matter again in December. Comments were requested as part of that review process.
The comments that NetAction submitted in San Francisco have been posted to our web site, at: http://netaction.org/broadband/SFComments-10-99.html.
We have also posted brief comments made by NetAction Advisory Board member Dr. Robert Jacobson during an appearance before the King County Expert Review Panel on High-Speed Internet Access. Those comments are on our web site at: http://netaction.org/broadband/KingComments-10-99.html.
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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