Tuesday, December 19, 2006

FCC Sides With Baby Bells: News & Action

The News:
There's been a rising tide of articles on the net, (e.g. B&C, Alliance) breaking out into major media over the last week (AP, Reuters) on the subject of the FCC chairman's attempt to end-run Congress on the subject of authorizing a federal regime to regulate local video franchises. He proposes to set a time limit on how long a locality can

The FCC Chairman, Kevin Martin, in the aftermath of the collapse of Senator Stevens' ("the internet is a series of tubes") attempt to overhaul telecom law in the last congress has come up with a novel idea: if the big business that the FCC exists to regulate can't get what they want from the representatives of the people, well, why not give it to them through the regulatory process?

Some Background:
The idea of the FCC doing an end run on Congress is by itself an astonishing exhibition of partisan arrogance and an overweening will to bureaucratic power.

Martin is suggesting that the FCC take up the failed phone company effort to create a federal video franchising regime and meet their demands through purely regulatory channels. Such a program would replace the current system where the owners of the local owners of the rights of way (usually municipalities) negotiate non-exclusive "franchises" to use that property with cable companies. Phone companies hoping to roll out a video product desire this simply because they want the ability to "compete" with established cable companies on unequal terms. Long time readers will recognize "video franchising" as a battle which the phone companies have been waging at every level of government. (examples: 1, 2, 3) In the process citizen interests in real competition and local control are lost. In Louisiana a bill to move franchising power to the state level was vetoed after intense opposition from local government and citizen's groups (including Lafayette Coming Together and this blog). Readers will have also seen posts on Steven's federal version of the same bad idea which was opposed by a wide range of pro-consumer groups.

The objections are both structural and practical: Taking local control of local property and turning it over to either state or federal government in order to serve the interests of a single major phone company in each region of the country is, on its face, an unconscienceable use of power. It is a taking of the property rights of local communities, one of the few remaining income sources local governments have, and turning that over to huge monopolies that have no sympathy for local interests. That is a structural mistake of the first order and should be enough to defeat the idea without further discussion. (The utter lack of "conservative" opposition to this "taking" is a index of how unreflectively subjugated the movement has become to anything big business wants.) Political practicality, at least at a local level, mitigates against the phone companies ideas as well. Local politicians will rightly never agree to the basic demand the phone companies are making: to use public land to serve only the mot profitable parts of the community. The key and crucial issue on which the phone companies have been unwilling to compromise is what the feds call "build-out requirements." The media in general have yet to quite figure this one out, and some stories neglect to mention it. But the one overriding reason the phone companies have for eliminating local control is the requirement of local communities that, in exchange for using local property owned by all the people, the phone companies ought to serve all the people. In various places the phone company has been willing to compromise on every other issue from costs to services provided, to additional PEG channels for local use. It has never been willing to compromise on restricted service. Universal public service in exchange for the use of public resources has been the deal made by both the phone companies and the cable companies from the beginning of their history. The phone companies want to break this compact in order to gain a competitive advantage over their entrenched cable opponents. (For a fuller explanation of how this works see "Sharks.")

In normal circumstances there'd be no question but that such a suggestion from the bureaucrat in charge of executing (not making) public policy would be deemed inappropriate and slapped down hard. Especially if it followed the legislatures failure to endorse the same concept. But these have not been normal times. The previous Congress, already going down in history as a prime example of a "do-nothing" body, had developed a sly (we'd say canille) form of making sure that its large corporate special interests would get what they wanted without our Congressment needing to dirty their hands. All that was required was to gut regulatory agencies, replacing long-term servants with new, partisan leadership whose mandate was clearly political: to simply refuse to actually do the regulation and oversight of the buisness community for which their departments existed and which the law requires. With the bureaucracy remaking federal policy by fiat the Congress was relieved of the uncomfortable necessity to actually change the law in order to change Federal policy.

Nifty eh?

Seen in that light the FCC chairman's willingness to substitute bureaucratic action for new laws is not so surprising. It just a continuation of business as usual.

Trouble is that was the way the previous Congress worked. The new one might well not appreciate having Martin substitute his idea of what best benefits the phone companies for Federal law. It is already objecting Martin's attempts to get an ethics exception which would allow one of the Republican members of the FCC to vote with Martin to allow the AT&T/BellSouth merger to go through without any conditions. Congresional leadership has written Martin letters suggesting that wouldn't be a good idea and have made noises about holding hearings on the merger. So far Martin has wisely declined to defy the Congress.

But this latest game suggests he really doesn't quite get it yet.

Take Action:
Acadiana Open Channel (AOC) head Ed Bowie recognizes the threat the FCC poses to local public access channels like AOC. Those channels are provided for in the local franchising agreements which Martin would like restrict. While local folks understand the value of local programming--particularly in unique cultural situations like those that exist in Lafayette. it is doubtful that distant Federal bureaucrats can be counted on to protect our interests.

The FCC's suggestion would put local programing and local universal service at risk merely to serve the a few companies like BellSouth. At this point the only people the FCC is likely to listen to is our congresscritters.

Ed suggests in a recent email that you participate in the Alliance for Community Media's web-based protest. He also provides links to the Boustany, Landrieu, and Vitter's web contact pages. A letter posted from your representatives own sites would probably be even more effective than using the Alliances form.

These folks are supposed to represent us. Let 'em know how you feel...and let 'em know that you expect the new Congress to loose the "do nothing" ways of its predecessor.

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