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2006-12-26

FCC Sides with Verizon & AT&T and Votes to Strip Local Communities of Control Over Cable Franchising

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Anthony Riddle, of the Alliance for Community Media, joins us in the Firehouse to talk about last week’s 3-2 vote. The FCC’s two Democratic commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein voted against the measure. [includes rush transcript]

In media news, the Federal Communications Commission has agreed to change cable franchising laws so that local communities have less control over incoming pay-television providers.

The vote was pushed for by the telecom giants Verizon and AT&T. The measure was passed by a three to two vote — with Democratic commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein dissenting.

Critics of the FCC’s decision are already planning a court challenge.

  • Anthony Riddle executive director, Alliance for Community Media.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Riddle of the Alliance for Community Media joins me now here in our New York studio on our second day here at DCTV, at the firehouse. Anthony, welcome to Democracy Now!

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Thank you, Amy. Thanks for having us.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened just before Christmas?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Yeah. I think the public really needs to be aware of the kind of processes that are taking place. We had this whole year and a half of hundreds of thousands of people contacting their congress people to let them know that we didn’t like the legislation that was going through. There was a combination of local governments, Free Press, the Alliance for Community Media with the Public, Education and Government Access, the consumers’ groups all fighting to a draw with the telephone companies to protect the public interest. And so, the telephone companies, within a month or two, have gone to a body of five people, gotten three votes, and they’ve gotten everything that they wanted in terms of being able to move in on video franchising without a lot of public interest obligations.

AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean, for people who are not aware?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Well, for anybody who’s watching this on cable or anybody who has cable, you know that that cable runs in the public land and that the companies that use the public land have to pay a certain amount of their gross revenues, and they have to make available certain resources, such as the public, education and government channels, the institutional —

AMY GOODMAN: So, you mean, because they dig up the roads to lay the cable, and they have a monopoly, they have to give back these public interest channels.

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Yeah. It’s not even the monopoly. It’s the fact that you and I own that land, and that they’re doing business on that land, and they need to give the community a little bit of something back in order to do that business, in addition to which, you know, the community you’re in makes sure that they don’t dig big pits in the middle of the street and leave your lawn messed up or leave wires hanging around. So, you know, the local government has an important role to play.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what is happening to these public access TV stations, of which there are how many in the country?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: We estimate that there’s over three thousand of them, public, education or government access, one form or another.

AMY GOODMAN: Known as PEG. Public, education and government.

ANTHONY RIDDLE: PEG, yeah. Well, first of all, they eliminated all of our operating funding, all of our operating funding, so there may be some money available for cameras, but none for people to run the access centers.

There’s the question — well, let me back up a little bit. The FCC issued a rulemaking on this subject. We all had to comment on it. Nobody gets to see it before it gets passed. It’s been passed for a week now, and nobody supposedly has seen it yet. And so, you have this really cloistered process that’s taking place, where the public can’t even really oppose it. But what we understand is in the rulemaking is that the new interest, namely the telephone company, may not even be required to carry the same number of channels, if any channels at all, for the public to use on their new systems.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain — I’m looking at freepress.net. It says, "Stop the AT&T giveaway. No Ma Bell merger without net neutrality." And it says that Kevin Martin, the chair of the FCC, is forcing one commissioner, Robert McDowell, to overlook a conflict of interest and rubberstamp the AT&T merger without safeguards for net neutrality. This is a slightly different issue.

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Yeah. Well, there’s really, I guess, including the one we talked about, there’s four issues that are coming up in front of the FCC, this non-elected body that we can’t get a handle on, and they’re going to decide. One of them was the AT&T/BellSouth merger, in which AT&T, which used to be Ma Bell, is trying to buy back all of its little pieces so that it can still be the biggest communications giant in the world. And they want to merge, and the FCC is deciding on this.

McDowell, who is the newest FCC commissioner, worked for CompTel. And so that’s one of the telephone representation groups. And so, he recused himself and didn’t vote on the merger. So that’s one of the issues that’s coming up. He did, unfortunately, vote against the public on the video franchising.

We also have media ownership rulemaking, which is coming up, which is, you know, whether these large companies can buy up all the newspapers and radio stations, and so forth. And one people haven’t paid much attention to in some cases is the women and minority ownership rules are also being decided by the FCC.

How do we reach these people? You know, we had thousands of people call. They’re not even set up to deal with the public. If you were to call Kevin Martin’s office in any large numbers, they wouldn’t even be able to handle the numbers of calls that would come in, because it’s typically an industry process that doesn’t involve the public.

AMY GOODMAN: Does it matter that the Democrats are now taking over Congress? And are these FCC rules that were determined right before, that were voted on right before Christmas going to be challenged by groups like yours?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Yeah, we’re going to challenge them in court. We’ll be in court with the local governments, I’m sure, as soon as the rules come out. The Congress, we have seen very strongly worded letters from Dingell, who will be in charge of commerce in the House, and several other members, including the New York delegation. But the problem is, they don’t have direct oversight unless you can get the entire Congress to do something and vote all as one. You know, if they were to get outraged over this stanchion of congressional power, then you might see something like that, but the likelihood of that happening or happening quick enough to make a difference is not very big.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, net neutrality, just in 30 seconds, explain it, and where does it fit into these pictures in the rulemaking?

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Well, net neutrality just simply means that if you’re going out and you’re using the internet, that you should be able to get the information that you’re looking for, if it’s out there, that nobody should be able to block you. Nobody should be able to slow it down, and nobody should be able to determine what you see. But the telephone companies and, to some degree, the cable companies who are going to be controlling the physical structure of the internet coming into your home, they want the right to decide who you get to see and what quality that information comes in. And so, this just fits in with everything. They want complete control of your communications system.

This is a dire time for the United States. I don’t think most people see it, and you’re not going to see it in the media. But you have several large companies who are taking over the entire communications system. And, you know, if this goes on with this kind of process, it should happen fairly soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to be heading to Memphis for the major conference on media reform and broadcasting from there mid-January. We’ll continue to follow this issue. Anthony Riddle is the executive director of the Alliance for Community Media. Thanks so much for joining us.

ANTHONY RIDDLE: Thanks, Amy.

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