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On HB 6456: I DON'T want my MTV...or your Fox News either

by: matt

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 being 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)             
4        WILX (NBC)               
5        WB               
6        WZPX - i Independent Television (can't ever remember watching this channel for any reason)
7        WSYM (FOX)               
8        WHTV (UPN)               
9        WLNS (CBS)               
10        TBS (I'm not an Atlanta Braves fan)             
11        WGN Chicago (I'm not a Cubs fan either, and the Bozo Show isn't around anymore)              
12        Government Access               
13        WKAR (PBS)               
15        Educational Access               
16        Public Access               
17        Comcast/MGTV               
18        Educational Access               
19        Religious 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.)             
20        Educational Access               
21        Educational Access               
22        Comcast Local (2pm - 2am)   
22        Jewerly Television (2am - 2pm) (Really! Who on earth watches this? Get them some help, please.)
23        The Learning Channel (Learning? Learn about what? Fabric swatches?)             
24        TNT               
25        C-Span               
26        C-Span2               
27        Bravo               
28        Court TV (The National Enquirer view of the American justice system)
29        FX               
30        Outdoor Life Network       
31        ESPN               
32        ESPN2               
33        Fox Sports Net-Detroit               
34        CNN               
35        Headline News (fascism - in a flash, brain hurts from too many things on the screen)
36        The Weather Channel               
37        CNBC (I suppose I might watch this someday... but probably not. Get rid of it.)             
38        Nickelodeon (no kids...yet)             
39        ABC Family (schmaltz/Pat Robertson)            
40        Disney Channel (no kids/lame)             
41        The Discovery Channel               
42        A&E               
43        USA Network               
44        Lifetime (Joan sez: no anti-feminist crap)             
45        E! Entertainment (Joan sez to keep this one. Don't know why.)              
46        MSNBC               
47        Home Shopping Network  (Ugh!)            
48        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)             
51        BET               
52        MTV (where is the "M" in MTV anymore?)             
53        VH1 (Joan likes the rockumentaries)              
54        QVC  (what the hell does QVC stand for, anyway?)            
55        TV Guide Channel               
56        AMC               
57        Animal Planet               
58        CMT (No Toby Keith. Heavens, how shall we ever survive?)
59        Comedy Central (Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert...need I say more?)               
60        Cartoon Network               
61        TV Land               
62        Fox News Channel (My views on Fox News are well-established.)             
63        The History Channel (Sometimes is interesting. Too much war, though.)              
64        Food Network               
65        The Golf Channel (Watching a tiny little white ball rolling around endlessly on a field of grass. Hmm...NAH!)
That's roughly 1/3 of channels on the lineup!
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)
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
History International
BBC America
Discovery Times
The Science Channel
National Geographic
The Biography Channel
Sci-Fi Channel
Turner Classic Movies
BET on Jazz
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 new jobs.

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 insufficient.

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 AT&T and Comcast. Why? Because YouTube is bascially a competitor for AT&T and 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?

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!
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.

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 like 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 days. 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.

Now...net neutrality.

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.
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Wow. Thanks for posting this, Matt.
I was really confused about everything surrounding this bill, and this post cleared a lot up for me.

I'm with you 100% on the a la carte pricing. Comcast charges way too much for fluff that I don't need. My channel lineup would be almost identical to the one you proposed. It kills me that I have to pay so much money for all those channels that I NEVER watch, and since I live on the lower-level of my apartment complex it's not like I could even try switching to a dish instead (not that I would anyway).

To me, net neutrality is a separate issue, and should be treated as such. This bill is complicated and convoluted enough without throwing in a completely different issue into the mix. Ideally, we should save the net neutrality fight for next year.

It would be nice to have a better idea where the governor stands on all of this.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few

My $0.02
If Joan sez I can't have Lifetime, I'd at least like TLC back for "What Not to Wear".  It's a chick thing, or at least THIS chick.

That said, great run down of the situation.  Sadly, a very few people (legislators included) will understand all sides of the issue prior to voting.

Do stupid people know they are stupid?

And my amendment
Force all cable providers to make high speed internet access as part of a basic package to all cable subscribers.

Access to the internet will only help facilitate the ability of average Americans to get knowledge they would otherwise not have through "traditional" news outlets.

Great post!
The main reason I started my posts on this issue was to raise the conversation about this issue above just the "We need net neutrality" argument.  It is an important topic, but there is so much more about this bill that should be discussed.

Are you sure you want the Geha and the Albin beamed into your living room? Think carefully...

This week, Rick had both Kooiman and Sak on "To The Point", explaining why it's just so darn hard to actually get any work done on the MBT- probably because they take time out of their week to go on shows like "To The Point" when they could be working.

When they send me to Hell for being an agnostic, I'm pretty sure that this is the episode that will be playing over and over and over....

Research purposes
The only reason I want them - and the other Detroit stations - is because I "run" Michlib and it might be nice to be able to see directly what they're talking about. Probably have the parent block on most of the time, though.

"Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never." - Winston S. Churchill

[ Parent ]
WOOD is actually pretty good
... about putting video up of the major stories, you have to catch them quick before they take them down though. It seems to run for about a week(?), maybe more. The clips are up usually by 8PM or so if it was a 6 o'clock story.

Albin does all the political, of course, and you really have to hear the inflection of his voice to understand his subtle bias. There is usually a printed story to go along with it, but it just doesn't do him justice. You have to hear him.

To The Point is available all week long, much to everyone's delight.

[ Parent ]
I wrote a piece on Comcast a few months ago.
I wrote about how Comcast had a monopoly on my town (Waterford) and we weren't able to get any other high-speed internet access here (save HughesNet, which is incredibly expensive).  I found out that while Comcast doesn't have a monopoly per se, every other company that my township has asked to come around has said no.  I don't know why this is, but I wouldn't be surprised if Comcast was involved in their saying no.

If this bill will at least get AT&T in my town to provide internet access, it will be a good thing for me.  I would like to have smaller companies with the ability to access my town, as well, but this would at least be a start.

However, I don't think ML, YouTube, or any other website should have to pay a fee to AT&T or Comcast to have that same high-speed power.  I love YouTube, and I want to watch it fast!:)

Until we get something less expensive than Comcast here, I'm stuck with my cell phone acting as my modem with my 230K dialup.  It's faster than a regular dialup, but still slow:(.

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