Death Of Community Access

December 9, 2005
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Hang down your head Fred Upton, you shame the principle of local control and would supplant it with bureaucratic bungling through federal control over communications systems — now the heart and soul of communities everywhere. The blasphemy under U.S. Rep. Fred Upton's signature is now named the Broadband Internet Transmission Services Act, reputed to be the telecommunications subcommittee's "reform" proposal. Upton is the subcommittee chairman.

Sound familiar? In August the Business Journal reported on a similar attempt called the Broadband Initiative and Consumer Choice Act (an oxymoron), a bill that did not die but was given new opportunity for bipartisan revisions. The second draft of the legislation, however, is absent of key elements of "choice," or bipartisan agreement.

The telecommunications companies have lobbied for changes in the federal telecommunications bill, insisting that if industry giants (like SBC) were required by telecom rules to provide "unbundled" services, cable operators must provide similar "concessions" in smaller markets. But in doing so, the subcommittee draft shifts cable franchising to the Federal Communications Commission, removes requirements to serve a whole municipality, and places current cable franchises at risk. Community losses would include the local Internet Service Providers (ISPs), but more importantly, restrict or eliminate channels, institutional networks and the use by municipalities of cable systems for local emergency alerts. (See the story on page 1.) The proposal shifts all cable franchising to the FCC.

While reporting on this issue in August, Grand Rapids Business Journal paraphrased the concerns of small business operators, particularly those in more rural communities, where no high-speed Internet options exist and outrageously unaffordable T-1 line connection fees have been quoted by the telecom companies. The House bill would make it illegal for municipalities to build Wi-Fi networks.

Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett attorneys working with the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council and other local governments advised, "(the bill) is harmful to municipal interests in cable franchising, telecommunications and control of rights of way. The bill is backed by phone companies wishing to ease their entry into cable-type business…"

Grand Rapids is considered a world leader in community access, largely by the work of CommunityMediaCenter co-founder and former executive director Dirk Koning, who died earlier this year. It is a community network that U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers helped to build, believing, as Koning did, that "information is power."

Public hearings on the federal legislation are anticipated to be held January through April of 2006, but "by invitation only."

We would wish Upton's holiday stockings be stuffed with the petitions of community members opposing such a breach of local control and the death of community access to information, and cynically ask whether the telecom companies have stuffed his holiday pockets.   

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