Mon Dec 04, 2006 at 12:11:10 PM EST
| Editor's note: the following is intended for people who
are already up-to-speed on Michigan House Bill 6456 - a bill to be debated in the State
Senate this week which deals with cable TV franchising and net
neutrality. A further explanation of what this whole thing is about
waits for you below the fold.
Memo to Google, the Michigan Municipal League, and the two lobbyists left in Lansing who haven't been hired by AT&T:
Your strategy on fighting HB 6456 is all wrong.
Look, I'm a blogger. I like net neutrality - and would much rather
AT&T and Comcast NOT be allowed to require certain websites (like
Michiganliberal.com, for example) to pay a legal bribe to keep from
blocked or have access slowed to a crawl. Without a doubt, that would
be a real drag - and un-American to boot. Having end-users foot the
bill for needed broadband infrastructure improvments has worked so far.
Why change it now?
But let's be real: most people in Michigan (including term-limited
legislators) have no friggin' clue what net neutrality is all about.
And you're not going to be able to explain it to them before the State
Senate probably votes on HB6456 this week.
If you really want to get serious, hit AT&T and Comcast where it
really hurts: talk about the fact that - even with major new leaps in
digital cable and "on-demand" service - people still don't have the ability to pick and choose what individual channels they would like to receive. It's called "a la carte" pricing - and it's something nearly everyone can relate to (even term-limited legislators). It even has the potential to transcend partisan boundaries.
Let's insist that if AT&T and Comcast are going to be relieved of
having to negotiate franchises with over 1,000 local governments - that
(among other conditions) they let parents who don't want their kids to
watch violent or explicit channels to opt not to buy them. Or perhaps a
customer would prefer not to pay for say, the Home Shopping Channel, or
Fox News (yay!) - why shouldn't they have the option?
For example, here's my current cable lineup - along with a few proposed changes...
(more below the fold...)
| matt :: On HB 6456: I DON'T want my MTV...or your Fox News either
3 WLAJ-53 (ABC)
That's roughly 1/3 of channels on the lineup!
4 WILX (NBC)
WZPX - i Independent
Television (can't ever remember watching this channel for any reason)
7 WSYM (FOX)
8 WHTV (UPN)
9 WLNS (CBS)
TBS (I'm not an Atlanta Braves fan)
WGN Chicago (I'm not a Cubs fan either, and the Bozo Show isn't around anymore)
13 WKAR (PBS)
16 Public Access
Access (I'm not opposed to a
religious access channel per se, however the only thing they ever seem
to talk about on this channel is the Book of Revelation.)
22 Comcast Local (2pm - 2am)
Jewerly Television (2am - 2pm) (Really! Who on earth watches this? Get them some help, please.)
Channel (Learning? Learn about what? Fabric swatches?)
Court TV (The National Enquirer view of the American justice system)
30 Outdoor Life Network
33 Fox Sports
Headline News (fascism - in a flash, brain hurts from too many things on the screen)
36 The Weather
CNBC (I suppose I might watch this someday... but probably not. Get rid of it.)
Nickelodeon (no kids...yet)
ABC Family (schmaltz/Pat Robertson)
Channel (no kids/lame)
41 The Discovery
43 USA Network
Lifetime (Joan sez: no anti-feminist crap)
Entertainment (Joan sez to keep this one. Don't know why.)
HGTV (I like my furniture right where it is, thank you very much.)
49 Spike TV (sometimes they play Next Generation)
50 Univision (Joan knows Spanish)
MTV (where is the "M" in MTV anymore?)
53 VH1 (Joan likes the
QVC (what the hell does QVC stand for, anyway?)
55 TV Guide
57 Animal Planet
CMT (No Toby Keith. Heavens, how shall we ever survive?)
Central (Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert...need I say more?)
61 TV Land
Channel (My views on Fox News are well-established.)
63 The History
Channel (Sometimes is interesting. Too much war, though.)
64 Food Network
The Golf Channel (Watching a tiny little white ball rolling around endlessly on a field of grass. Hmm...NAH!)
Now here's a few channels I'd like to add in place of the ones crossed off (plus one more channel, as yet to be determined):
CBET-Windsor (CBC) (Hockey night in Canada and quality news from a country with national health care)
This is just a guess, but I'll bet AT&T and Comcast are a lot more
afraid of the implications of an a la carte channel system than they
are of a net neutrality clause in a Michigan bill that already gives
them a huge leg up. And I'll certainly bet dollars to donuts that
you'll get a hecukva lot more political traction out of this than by
bending over backwards trying to explain what net neutrality really
means and why we shouldn't pay attention to AT&T's talk of 2,000
WTVS Detroit (PBS) (We used to have WTVS - until Comcast pulled it and figured they could make more money with something else)
WFUM Flint (PBS)
WXYZ-TV Detroit (ABC)
WOOD-TV Grand Rapids (NBC)
WDIV-TV Detroit (NBC)
Independent Film Channel
The Science Channel
The Biography Channel
Turner Classic Movies
BET on Jazz
Welcome to Lansing, Google!
HB 6456/Net Neutrality: background for for the layman (and non-layman):
InterrupT has already done a yeoman's job of giving an even-handed explanation of the guts of this issue. However, let me try to take a whack at it too.
Currently in Michigan, if a company wants to offer cable TV service in
an area, they have to negotiate an 10-year agreement with each
individual township or city for the exclusive right to use their right
of way, telephone poles, etc., to deliver TV service into people's
homes. In return, the cable companies pay the city or township certain
fees and abide by whatever other terms the municipality manages to eke
out of the cable company. This is called a franchise.
In this Feb., 2005 article, the Lansing City Pulse
describes the wrangling that was going on here in capital city over
renewal of the Comcast franchise. The fight had already been going on
for two years at that point. I'm not sure, but I suspect it's still
ongoing today. Other fights like this happen - and are happening - all around the state.
Anyway, the point is that with well-over 1,000 Michigan cities and
townships in the state of Michigan alone, having to negotiate franchise
agreements is a huge pain in the ass for cable companies.
Then someone figured out how to pipe TV signals across telephone wires.
That's just dandy for AT&T (née SBC, née Ameritech,
née Michigan Bell, née AT&T), who has struggled to
come up with a business model that makes sense ever since cellular
telephones became the rage. Problem is, AT&T would need to go
through the same laborious process in negotiating local franchises that
Comcast does in order to be able to sell service. They'd rather not
have to do that.
Instead of having to deal with over 1,000 cities and townships,
AT&T would rather just negotiate with one entity: the State of Michigan. This was
the genesis of HB 6456, introduced on 9/12/06 by Rep. Mike Nofs
(R-Battle Creek). It would allow the state Public Service
Commission to dictate the form of local franchises, essentially
allowing the state - not local governments - to have control over the
process. Local governments would still continue to get some
compensation under the proposal (though not what they'd like), there
would be some provision for requiring the inclusion of local and cable
access channels, and some requirements for how service is implemented -
purportedly to guard against "cherry-picking" of more affluent and
populated areas. Critics of HB 6456 say all of these provisions are
But what about net neutrality?
Meanwhile, over in the swamp (a.k.a., Washington, D.C.) the issue of net neutrality - that
is whether or not internet service providers (i.e. Comcast or AT&T)
ought to be able to either limit or offer faster access to
certain websites, depending on whether or not that particular website
paid Comcast, AT&T, or whomever a sizeable mordida -
rages on and on (read more at freepress.net here, and hear Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) offer
a musical explanation here).
Why would AT&T & Comcast want to do this?
While some may believe this is all a Republican plot by George Bush and
his corporate allies to squelch websites they don't like, I actually
don't think that's the intention (Which isn't to say that it couldn't
happen. These days, I wouldn't put anything past them). The real issue
here (as usual) is money...lots and lots of money.
The growth of video on demand on the web freaks out AT&T and
Comcast. Then along comes Google, who suddenly decides to buy YouTube
for a total of $1.65 billion. This really scares the bejeezus out of
and Comcast. Why? Because YouTube is bascially a competitor for
Comcast's new "on-demand" services. With it's grainy resolution, bad
sound, and short lengths, YouTube might not seem like much of a
competitor. Yet, when you look at the diversity of videos available on
YouTube (legal and otherwise) and compare to what's available on On-Demand, it's no
match. Even worse (for Comcast and AT&T), all of this content is
availble for free - and is piped in to users' homes on their broadband wires.
What Comcast and AT&T really fear most - with some justification - is
that someday soon Google and YouTube will begin offering programs on
demand over the Internet in the same (or nearly the same)
picture-quality that you would get from cable. The day may not even be
long before regular real-time/broadcast channels will come to you over
the Internet. In that scenario, people begin getting their TV over the
web - courtesy of YouTube (or some other online provider), who doesn't have to pay franchise fees,
maintain lines to people's houses, etc. So for AT&T and Comcast,
their infrastructure needs increase as people demand more
bandwidth for YouTube (or whoever) Internet-based TV service. Yet, at
the same time, Comcast and AT&T will get less revenue from their on-demand services, with the potential that people may even get rid
of their premium or digital cable channels in order to get their live
TV online (at a better price - no infrastructure costs, remember?).
To put it another way, here's what AT&T CEO Edward Whiteacre told Business Week a little over a year ago:
How do you think they're (Google, MSN, Vonage, and others) going to get
to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We
have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I
ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and
we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some
mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion
they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?
This is what the fight over net neutrality is really all about. It's a
clash of titans - between AT&T & Comcast - and Google, MSN,
Vonage, etc. AT&T and Comcast want cold, hard cash from
Google, MSN, Vonage etc. for using their bandwidth - especially when
the stuff coming down that "pipe" (as Mr. Whiteacre calls it) is in
direct competition with AT&T and Comcast's TV offerings and/or
telephone service. Google, MSN, and others, meanwhile, like the current
"net-neutral" system, have done well by it, and want to keep it. And
they don't want to pay AT&T and Comcast anything.
The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable
companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage
or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!
So what does this have to do with franchising and cable TV service in Michigan?
Just like in the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, a war
between mega corporations often develops many different fronts and
smaller proxy-wars. That's what's happening in Michigan.
According to at least one net neutrality activist (Frannie Wellings of Free Press - quoted in MIRS, 12/1/06), AT&T introduced
HB 6456 (that's the bill here in Michigan) as a part of a
state-by-state pre-emptive strike against net neutrality. This may or
may not in fact be the case. AT&T (and Comcast) certainly do have
powerful incentive enough just to end the cumbersome local franchising process.
On the other hand, this definition - taken directly from HB 6456 is
about as clear as mud - and raises all kinds of questions about how
a service like YouTube would be treated under the law:
(p) "Video service" means video programming,
cable services, IPTV, or OVS provided through facilities located at
least in part in the public rights-of-way without regard to delivery
technology, including internet protocol technology. This definition
does not include any video programming provided by a commercial
mobile service provider defined in 47 USC 332(d) or provided solely
as part of, and via, a service that enables users to access content,
information, electronic mail, or other services offered over the public
internet. (emphasis added)
"Soley as part of, and via"...what the heck does that exactly mean?
Anyway, regardless of whether AT&T was trying to start a net
neutrality war in Michigan or not, they have one now. Google is pissed
and wants language inerted in the bill that assures net neutrality.
Each side has recruited allies. As a unionized company, AT&T has
been able to recruit the support of the Communications Workers of
America and the AFL-CIO in support of their legislation. Opponents
include Google, local governments, and online activists.
The House vote earlier this month certainly suggests AT&T (a
heavy political contributor this year - who has hired virtually every lobbying firm in town) has the upper hand in the
Legislature - the measure passed the House 80-21. It's expected to go
before the Senate this coming week. As a new arrival, Google hasn't had
nearly the Lansing presence of AT&T and Comcast - and hasn't had
quite as much time to grease the wheels of power. However, it is worth
remembering that Google announced it was creating 1,000 new Michigan
jobs right in the middle of this year's election - a move widely seen
as being helpful to Governor Granholm, who has so far given little
indication as to her position on HB 6456.
Here's what I think...
It's obvious that AT&T and Comcast REALLY want to get rid of local
franchising. And, in spite of whatever benefits might go to local units
of government, I'm inclined to agree with them on this point. Having to
haggle with 1,000 different jurisdictions may have worked out all right
25-years ago when cable systems were locally-run and when only one
company had the physical ability to offer service. However, today, with
giant mega-corporations running the cable industry, coupled with new
technology, it just doesn't make that much sense. Plus (and don't tell
Comcast and AT&T this), I can envision that the state might
actually stand a better chance at negotiating concessions from the
Comcast/AT&T army of lawyers than the legal staffs of Homestead
Township or the City of Birch Run.
On the other hand...
Even before we get to the net neutrality issue, though, I have a bone to pick
with Comcast's cable TV service. How is it that for $45.95 a month, I
get 60 channels - many of which I don't watch nor have any desire to
pay for? Our cable TV box has the ability to instantly give us a
seemingly limitless number of free and pay-per-view on demand programs
- which occasionally are worth watching. Yet we're supposed to believe
the technology doesn't exist to sell channels a la carte? Hogwash!
See my rant about this in the intro.
Anyway, the idea of a la carte cable channels has been around for years. How
about we extract a promise from the cable companies that they begin
offering a la carte service? It's good for everybody. Parents who are
worried about exposing their kids to sex and violence can opt not to
buy certain channels. People (like me) who have moral objections to Fox
News or other channels can opt not to pay for them. Keep the public
access channels and CSPAN as part of everyone's channel lineup.
That brings me to another thing...
Michigan Government Television (MGTV) is Michigan's version of C-SPAN,
run by the state's cable companies.
Yet it's only on from 10AM to 2PM on weekdays! Occasionally, they
manage to catch part of a live Senate session. But usually, it seems
they showcase month-old legislative hearings about a bill that's
already been signed into law. How about we expand MGTV's operating
hours beyond 4 hours a day? Is that so much to ask? Now that Dems have
control of the House, I'd kind of like to watch them while I work - and
a lot of the time the House doesn't come into session until after 2.
Obviously, MGTV would also require more funding to make this work. It
sure would be nice if they could also begin making hearings available
on the web for download.
And finally, local governments are getting screwed left and right these
Washington and Lansing cut taxes, and local governments pick up the
bill. Whatever deal that comes out needs to make sure they're covered.
Save the local cable access channels (how would I ever survive without
John Mangopolous?), and require protections against redlining that
keeps poor people from being offered service.
This should actually be very simple. AT&T lobbyist (and former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader John Engler)
Gail Torreano says net neutrality is "totally separate and different"
from HB 6456. (MIRS, 11/30/06). Great. Then it should be no big deal to
agree on and
include language making it abundantly clear that this is the case,
right? Right? And if AT&T and Comcast want to go to a non-neutral
internet in Michigan, let them come back in the next legislative term
and ask specifically for approval on that question.
On the other hand, if it IS a big deal for AT&T (which at the
moment, it seems to be) - that would tend suggest Torreano is not being
entirely candid with us about not having an anti-net neutrality agenda
with HB 6456. On that
basis alone, the bill ought to be vetoed - and that veto upheld.
The point is, if we're going to give away the store (i.e.,
local franchising), the People of Michigan are entitled to expect
something in return - something of value. Not having to negotiate with
1,000 local governments is a huge carrot. As tantalizing as the
prospect of 2,000 new AT&T jobs
is - we ought to demand more...a LOT more.