Broadband Democracy

The American Civil Liberties Union recently declared open, competitive Internet access to be “one of the key free speech issues of the early 21st century,” adding that “the Internet’s potential for free expression, civic involvement and economic innovation” are at stake.

Initially, that potential seemed secure, as the Internet evolved from a small, government-funded network in which purely commercial transactions were forbidden, into a thriving community of ideas, goods, and services.

More recently, however, the Internet's traffic patterns have begun to resemble those of network television, with a handful of new-media giants (led by AOL Time Warner, Microsoft, and Yahoo), armed with restrictive digital copyright policies, that threaten to dominate the World Wide Web. Bowing to the pressure of the communications and entertainment industries, the Federal Communications Commission is in the process of dismantling long-standing media ownership safeguards, among them rules that will extend the cable television giants' control of broadband Internet service. Cable is destined to become the dominant Internet access platform. Little wonder the ACLU is worried.

The defining characteristic of the Internet has been “open access”: the ability to choose your ISP, receive any content, and transmit any information. Media democracy advocates' concern is whether open access will continue under the broadband revolution. Will the local cable broadband networks ensure open access and nondiscriminatory transport of all online content, including that of nonprofit and community groups as well as commercial competitors? Or will tiered levels of transport fees for streaming media services be prohibitive for alternative voices? Technology has made it possible to allocate slower connections to those that might not have a close financial tie to the monopoly owner; citizens could unwittingly lay blame for poor service on the Website or the ISP. While DSL is still a broadband option, many suspect that telephone companies will soon be relieved of their line-sharing requirements, giving them the same local Internet monopoly status that cable companies currently enjoy.

Even as the mass media becomes more massive, there are a number of things that local activists can do to help their communities create an electronic commons and to protect their rights to a democratic media. Cable franchise agreements, which come up periodically for renewal or ownership transfer, provide opportunities for local organizations and municipal officials to work together to strengthen the local communications infrastructure. Such agreements determine the vital “public-interest dividend”—financial support, production facilities, and network capacity—that communities are legally permitted to demand in return for the cable franchisee's use of local rights-of-way. While these agreements can be complicated, the public is often successful in negotiating for such basic public-interest requirements as:

1) financial support for local public–, education–, and government–access channels;

2) set-asides of digital bandwidth for various noncommercial community uses; and

3) designation of a portion of the cable company's fiber-optic architecture for the creation of local high-speed intranets (I-nets), connecting municipal agencies, schools, public libraries, and other community resources.

More importantly, once the agreement with the cable operator is signed, local media activists can shift their attention to the local franchise authority itself, the agency designated by the city government to operate the municipal cable communications infrastructure. No longer limited to scrolling text announcements, endless re-broadcasts of city council meetings, and amateurish “Wayne's World” variety shows, public-access television in the digital age can encompass a wide variety of old- and new-media services, including broadband Internet access. For examples of what savvy negotiations and community activism can produce, take a look at Grand Rapids, Michigan's Grandnet,, and Chicago Access Network Television,, whosepublic access broadcast, media training, and online resources are triumphs of public-interest media.

It is never too late to campaign for local media services, but action is especially important now, as we make the transition from analog media to new digital systems.

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