Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"Suburbs against the U(ni)verse"

Ars Technica is the surprising location of the absolutely best article I've yet to see on the video franchise issue. It discusses, in detail, the conflict between AT&T and suburban towns outside of Chicago. If you want to understand what is beneath the main media stories that present a "balanced" repetition of competing press releases this is the story to read first. --And since this conflict is coming to Louisiana and Lafayette you might want to set aside the time to develop a little background.

As has been true before our sister-in-arms city, Geneva, is giving us an advance view of trouble headed our way. Phil Peter and Annie Collins' experience with AT&T's tactics in Geneva during a fiber referendum that was beat back by push polling, a blizzard of misleading FUD motivated the "innoculation" tactics successfully used by Lafayette Coming Together in our own fight. We owe Geneva a lot...and it looks like they're out front again. When AT&T buys BellSouth we'll be dealing with exactly the same tactics here in Louisiana that the suburban towns near Chicago are dealing with today.

In a nutshell: AT&T claims that their new cable-work-alike Uverse video offerings are not really cable TV and so they don't have to mess with the video franchises that cable companies have to in order to offer cable TV services. This is there claim wherever they introduce the service--and it was their claim here in Louisiana during the last general session. But the suburbs of Chicago aren't buying it. Disturbed by the secretive deployment of new, large, and ugly DSLAM boxes to support the video offering and insistent that AT&T follow the same rules that cable companies have to follow and offer the service to everyone in their town if they want to use the towns rights-of-way, the towns have refused to allow the installation of the boxes that would support the service. AT&T has sued.

There are two ironies here-- First, the phone company now claims that its fiber upgrade is necessary to offering moderns services when it recently fought two attempts of the Tri-Cities to do do real fiber, calling it "unnecessary." Second, AT&T wants to deploy in parts of these relatively wealthy suburbs and not in Chicago at all right now as part of its larger cherry-picking plan. The objection to state-level plans such as the one suggested in Louisiana last year, was that we all thought that wealthy suburbs would get it and less profitable areas would be ignored. (Cravin's speech) AT&T's move in Illinois makes it clear that concern was valid. They are only preparing to deploy in wealthy areas like these Chicago suburbs. You'd think AT&T would agree to serve all of at least these sorts of communities. But they won't and the towns, with a relatively active and aware citizenry are not willing to approve cherry-picking within their privledged areas. If that proves generally true it could prove disasterous for AT&T 's business plan. (Hence the attempt to get the FCC to clear their path...see yesterday's post.)

Do take a look at the full text of the story and rest assured that we'll be faced with these issues ourselves soon enough.

(Don't miss the comments both at Ars Technica and at Slashdot where the story was referenced. Seeing intelligent, thoughtful commentary on news stories is really refreshing.)

It's great to see such a story on the web. Ars Technica has long been the premier place to get well-written articles on arcane technical issues. (It's the absolute best place to read up on user interface issues in new revisions of operating systems, for those that care.) But Ars Technica has begun applying its intense, exacting, methodical style of reporting to the social and political issues that touch upon the technical core that defines its readership.

We should all be grateful--it leads to well-written articles, which do not try to fit themselves into some sort of pre-defined length, and that are intended for a readership the author regards as competent. That alone is refreshing. But even more invigorating is the presumption of their technically-oriented authors that the point of exploring an issue is to come to some sort of reasoned, sensible conclusion. Modern reporting conventions lead to mushy stories that report both sides of any conflict as if there were no basis for actually chosing between the positions espoused by the different sides's press releases. That is seldom true--as we became aware of during Lafayettes fiber referendum. This suburbs article accurately recounts both sides--but doesn't hesitate to call one sides nonsense nonsense, if that is what is called for. For instance:
When asked about Wheaton and Geneva's six- and three-year time frames, AT&T's Rob Biederman responsed, "Requiring new competitors to build their networks everywhere immediately will likely mean they cannot afford to build their networks anywhere." This is probably true, but is not what any of the people I spoke with were suggesting.
How refreshing! The author notices the little deceptive slide and doesn't hesitate to point it out to the reader. Standard reporters just repeat the misleading reply with poker-faced even-handedness. The reporter also doesn't hesitate to point out that much of the argument for "competition" is being made by organizations that are funded by the phone companies even while they present themselves as grassroots organizations.

Good stuff.

1 comment:

John said...

Here's an interesting bit of byplay on the franchise issue: with the 3-2 purely partisan decision Wednesday the FCC threatens to create a situation in Congress where the local franchise is a partisan issue.

That would be too bad....a substantial bipartisan agreement that the new FCC rules are bad policy would make it a lot easier to erase the error.

Net Neutrality has already become a partisan issue--the first telecom issue that anyone can remember to take on that complexion. Generally corporate toadies have shown up on both sides of the isle. One of the front runners for the Republican nomination next time, John McCain, was co-author of a very good bill that would have protected local sovereignty and the ability to build competing networks like Lafayette's.

Markey and others will surely pursue this issue in Congress. Local franchising will become an interesting test of whether the Republican party really believes in small government and local control or is actually in favor of whatever its corporate contributors desire.

There will never be a clearer case.