Beating the COPE Act: New Legislation Threatens Future of Public Access


From NYC IndyMedia, April 17, 2006 (via Free Press News)
By Lyell Davies

On April 5th the phone company backed COPE Act was “marked-up” and moved out of sub-committee in Washington. The COPE Act follows on the heels of BITS II and earlier controversial legislation that seeks to help the phone companies enter into the Broadband video-service market—and in the process change rules that have for decades successfully governed local telecommunications franchising. The COPE Act is being fast-tracked towards full Commerce Committee hearings before the end of April.

Around the country public interest, municipal, grassroots media, and other organizations are organizing opposition to the COPE Act. Go to www.mnn.org/saveaccess to learn what these organizations are saying about the bill—and to take action!

COPE has received little attention in the mainstream media, and almost no attention has been paid to the impact it would have on Community Access TV (Public, Educational and Governmental or PEG TV). By dismantling the “local franchises” which allow local communities to govern local communications—COPE will strip PEG TV of the arrangements that have for three decades provided local Community Access TV stations with funding and channel space.

This will further shrink the range of locally produced public-interest non-commercial media—shrinking the so-called electronic “greenspace”.

The Alliance For Community Media (ACM)—which advocates for PEG TV in Washington—said it would not support COPE unless six specific amendments were added to the bill. These amendments would ensure standardized funding and channel capacity for PEG nationwide, while ensuring local “design” for it—however the bill left subcommittee hearings without these amendments.

Community Access TV is one of richest public media forums in the country, fostering the airing of television programming reflecting the diverse experiences of America’s local communities—around the country millions of individuals regularly volunteer at these stations to produce local content programming. COPE does contain some provisions for PEG TV—but critics note although these provisions might benefit a few currently under-funded Community Access TV stations, it would strip other centers of funding and resources—and COPE includes no guarantees for the future.

Leading municipal organizations, including the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities, National Association of Telecommunication Officers and Advisors (NATOA) and others, are speaking out against this legislation. In a recent statement they said local franchises “are a core tool local government uses to manage streets and sidewalks, provide for public safety and homeland security… provide locally-originated programming, and collect compensation for private use of public land… Congress should not try to oversee management of local street and sidewalks from Washington DC”.

To counter the genuine grassroots opposition to this legislation, the phone companies have resorted to a down and dirty “astroturf” campaign involving fake front-groups who pretend to speak for the public. In a recent report titled “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: Telecom Industry Front Groups and Astroturf”—Common Cause says the phone companies are engaged in “underhanded tactics… creating front groups that try to mimic true grassroots, but they are all about corporate power, not citizen power”; these campaigns “deliberately mislead citizens and they deliberately mislead our lawmakers”

Residents of the beltway report they have been bombarded by phone company advertisements favoring this legislation—but the far-reaching changes that would come with it have so far been off the radar for many people.

Conservative politicians are pushing this legislation arguing it will create competition between video-service companies—and thereby lower subscriber rates. Municipal organizations disagree—they argue nationalized franchising would limit competition to “head-to-head competition by a chosen few, and would undermine the ability of local governments to protect their residents”. On the issue of redlining these organizations say services should be for everyone “not just in urban or suburban areas and not just for the wealthy”.

Criticism of the COPE Act has focused primarily on its absence of “Net Neutrality”—thereby allowing companies that own the wires to introduce a pay-as-you-go system speeding access to some content, while slowing access to other content. And the absence of “build out” requirements—thereby allowing the phone companies to introduce services only in the most profitable neighborhoods, while skipping over or “redlining” less profitable communities—such as rural, low income or minority ones.

The COPE Act (The Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006) is sponsored by Fred Upton (R-Mich), Chip Pickering (R-Miss), and Joe Barton (R-TX)—Barton has been relentless in his push for this legislation—despite resistance from major consumer, public-interest and municipal organizations. “Decisions made today will effect the whole future of television and the Internet”, says Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy (4/14/06).

— To learn about steps you can take to oppose the COPE Act visit: www.mnn.org/saveaccess

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