Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fiber Recommended

So I’m watching BBC last night and here’s this story on a fella on some rural farm in Japan and he is bragging about his 50 Mbps broadband speed and how he has more time for fishing because he no longer has to commute and can service all his clients from home and it sent me right into a self-righteous diatribe about how crappy broadband service is here in the US. Then to pour lemon juice into the wound comes another story about some people in Kenya who are laying fiber to all these villages and this chick sitting in Central Park telling us the WiFi is free but nobody in New York gets 50 Mbps unless they are willing to pay around $150 a month for it.

I thought my head was going to explode.

And it was only last week that I listened to a presentation by Terry Huval of the Lafayette Utilities System on how Lafayette took things into their own hands and built their fiber ring because they knew if they waited for Cox or any other provider to do it right they might as well wait for pigs to fly.

So I can now get 1 Mbps upstream and 6 Mbps downstream for $45.95 a month from my local provider, who shall remain nameless but it starts with a C and ends with a T. And my fellow travelers in Lafayette get 10 Mbps up and down for $28.95 a month; 30 Mbps up and down for $44.95 a month; and 50 Mbps up and down for $57.95 a month. See Huval’s presentation here:

I hate those people in Lafayette.

They do have a history of being cranky. Seems in 1896 they decided to build their own electric and water system because they knew there was no way the utility providers would provide water and power any time too soon to what was an outback Cajun village. And they had to fight in the 1940’s to keep the big utility companies from taking over their system. Imagine the hubris of those people in Lafayette! It was déjà vu when they proposed to build their own fiber, and the public overwhelmingly approved the initiative, in 2005. The incumbent cable company that starts with a C and ends with an X, did everything to stop them, including taking a case all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court. But Lafayette prevailed.

Laissez les Bon Temps Roulette!

Meanwhile the Federal Communications Commission just released a report called “Report on a Rural Broadband Strategy,” an excellent document that examines the issues of rural broadband, raises critical questions and provides potential models for how broadband can be deployed to rural and underserved America. However, in the section regarding government sponsorship or ownership was this:

“Although many have expressed concerns regarding the provision of government-sponsored or government-owned broadband services, raising questions about the appropriate role of government as a broadband service provider, the potential for market distortion, and the consequences of unfair competition…”

I would love to know who those “many” were. I would bet many of those many belong to an organization that starts with an N and ends with an A. The report goes on to say that 19 states have passed legislation dealing with municipal ownership of broadband that limit it or ban it all together. Meanwhile the Australian government has taken it on themselves to upgrade its infrastructure to deliver 100 Mbps to 90% of the homes and offices in the country. My guess is their telecom and cable lobby isn’t as efficient as it should be, maybe some of the boys on “K” Street could give them lessons.

The FCC report recommends that the state members of the Federal-State Joint Conference on Advanced Services “work to develop an inventory of resources, “best practices,” and success stories to inspire and motivate others to undertake the difficult but ultimately rewarding task of bringing broadband to rural communities across this nation.”

And I’d like to recommend the first place they start is by putting in a call to Terry Huval in Lafayette. He plays a mean fiddle by the way.

A good read on all the antics that went on (and still do) surrounding this project is the Lafayette Pro-Fiber Blog at

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The "Look"

When my kids were little they were quite adept at reading my facial expressions. Especially that expression that communicated to them that I was not pleased. Today they call it the “look” as in “remember when mom would give you the look?” I believe that moms are uniquely endowed with the “look.” The “look” meant “whatever it is you are doing right now, stop it immediately because I do not approve.” It was unnecessary to accompany the “look” with any verbal communication, the “look” spoke for itself. And it was powerful enough to make them immediately stop in their tracks and slink timidly away from the offending activity.

Since I believe myself to be a master of the “look” I feel it is my duty to give the “look” to some cable and telecommunications companies.

The first “look” goes to Time Warner Cable for attempting to sock it to their customers by rolling out a metered broadband access plan. Particularly aimed at people who watch and download online videos, Time Warner couched their plan as more equitable. According to, the company said that “they wanted to give lower rates to customers who use the Net least and higher rates to those who use it most.” Isn’t that just like Time Warner? Always looking out for the little guy.

“We don’t want to spread our infrastructure and service costs to all users, we’re nice that way!”

Communities began complaining and firing off letters to TW, but it was after Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Eric Massa (both of New York) became involved that Time Warner backed off. There was some mumbling about cherishing their relationship with Schumer and some further mumbling about how they were just misunderstood, that’s all.

CEO Glenn Britt said in a press statement that it was “clear from the public response over the last two weeks that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about our plans to roll out additional tests on consumption based billing."

Mr. Britt, I have a sneaking suspicion that the general public understood your plans quite well and so did I, which is why you are getting the “look.”

My next “look” goes State Senator David Hoyle of North Carolina, a DemoRat and Chairman of the Board of the Citizens South Bank Corporation and a Director at a waste management company in Louisiana. Hoyle is the proud sponsor of a bill in North Carolina that would prevent local governments from building municipal broadband and prevent them from taking any broadband stimulus money.

The reports that the legislation’s impetus may have come from the City of Wilson’s wildly successful muni-run cable service, Greenlight, Inc..

“…the city offers an expanded basic cable (81 channels), 10 Mbps (download and upload), and a digital phone plan with unlimited long distance to the U.S. and Canada, all for $99.95. A comparable plan from Time Warner Inc., with six fewer channels (no Cartoon Network, Disney, The Science Channel, ESPNU, ESPN News, or ESPN Classic) and lower upload speeds costs $137.95, for an introductory rate, which lasts a few months and then will likely be ratcheted up.”

According to DailyTech this was all too much for Time Warner and Embarq so they schmoozed the North Carolina legislature and believe it or not, found a simpatico in Hoyle (the real estate developer, banker and whatever it is you call people who run “waste management” in the South, I know what we call them in the Northeast).

Hoyle! Are you feeling me pal? Yeah, I’m looking at you.

The final “look” (for today) is for anybody and everybody involved in the digital television transition. Nobody seems to have any clear data on the transition’s effect on rural communities, particularly those with terrain. There has been very little to no education that the converter box is not the only piece of equipment people in those communities will need, an antenna, and not just rabbit ears but the big honking kind my daddy used to have up on the roof, is also needed. According to the Daily Yonder, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency has funded digital assistance centers, with most of them being in metropolitan areas with large media markets. The Denver Post reports that as many as two out of five television translators are not going to work.

But, my favorite is this from the Daily Yonder:

“…the FCC discovered in late December that almost 11% of local TV stations across the country are using the digital conversion as an opportunity to change their coverage areas. Stations are focusing their broadcast signals on higher income suburbs, dropping coverage of poorer and more distant rural communities.”

There will be more looks in the future I am sure, I never tire of pointing out rotten behavior. But as of this minute I am worn out from expecting better from people and corporations. My one burning question is: who raised these people?

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Love is a Many Splendored Thing

Did you know it’s great to be in love? Love releases all kinds of chemicals in your brain, among them adrenaline, dopamine, fenylethylamine, endorphin and oxytocin. Adrenaline causes your pupils to get bigger, your heart to go up, your breathing get faster and reduces hunger. Dopamine acts like cocaine and it’s addictive. Fenylethylamine acts like ecstasy and speed. Endorphin has the effect of heroine and opium. Oxytocin makes you feel connected, takes away fear and makes you feel confident. So when you’re in love you’re really just totally whacked out on drugs, that’s what makes it so good. And as we all know, love is way more intense in the Spring.

According to a recent article in Broadcasting and Cable (, Rick Boucher (D-VA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, was feeling the love at the Cable Show 2009. And he was putting out plenty of love in return. The article says he “had a pledge and several requests for the cable industry, which he delivered wrapped in praise for National Cable & Telecommunications Association CEO Kyle McSlarrow and for cable’s commitment to broadband, interactive services and a digital-TV education campaign.”

Can you feel it?

Regarding the broadband stimulus money, Boucher urged the cable boys to aggressively apply for the funds. He even said “please.” And who says cable-cos don’t make passes at Congressmen who wear glasses?

Boucher went on to promise that conditions “imposed relating to nondiscrimination and open access should not be onerous to the extent that they discourage applicants from applying.” Of course, he is a Democrat who thoroughly understands that abstinence only doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, just as the petting party is heating up, Verizon, Comcast, at&t (among others) are lobbying state legislatures to prohibit municipal broadband. At the front of the lobbying is Connected Nation, which counts Verizon, Comcast, at&t and the National Cable Telecommunications Association among its advisors, according to
Karl Bode of is quoted as saying “[Connect America] takes state taxpayer funds under the pretense of effectively mapping state broadband services, but then acts by and large as an extension of the incumbents — obscuring data they don’t want public, while lobbying state lawmakers on carriers’ behalf.”

Mmmm…where have we seen that before? Can you say statewide cable franchising? $50 to the first person who connects Dick Armey with Connected Nation! No really, I will send you $50.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last time, a Democrat swooned over the cable industry’s advances. In fact their swooning is getting a bit tedious, it’s like watching teenagers making out at the mall, too much public show of affection kiddies, maybe you should get a room. Do these people have no shame or is this just the logical conclusion of a society that has lost its moral compass? What next? Former representatives working for the industry? Industry hacks working for Congress? Next thing you know representatives will work for the industry while actively serving in Congress. Oh, the humanity!

Another link on was to a story about how Cameron Kerry has been nominated by President Obama to be general counsel of the Commerce Department. “Kerry, younger brother of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), has represented the cable industry in federal and state court, as well as before the FCC on issues ranging from rate regulation and franchising to FCC license and rulemaking issues. Kerry has represented the cable industry as an attorney with Mintz Levin in Boston and Washington.”

Geesh, and everybody is still upset at former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer for hiring a hooker. Aren’t we all just a nation of hypocrites?

Love is not to be taken lightly. Ships have launched for love. Suicides have been committed. Eyes have been gouged out. Representative Boucher is only answering the call of the siren and who can blame him for wanting to feel doped up?

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Cardin Cans Constitution

When I first heard about Ben Cardin’s (D-MD) bill to allow newspapers to become nonprofits, I said to myself “you need to stew on that for a minute.” I felt I needed time to percolate the idea through my little brain and try to think of all the permutations of the impact of that legislation. This morning I caught an email in which the sender asked a serious question:

“Anybody have a clue why it would require "local, national, and international news stories"...why the "and" v. an "or"?

As written, this would favor regional dailies, subscribing to AP, etc., and actually exclude independently owned, truly local community newspapers like your hometown weekly. Is this intentional?”

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I have never liked Ben Cardin. It goes back to 1997, when I, as a Maryland resident and constituent, called his office to arrange a meeting. At that time, he was still a lowly Congressman, not a Senator. I was told by his scheduler that Congressman Cardin did not meet with individuals unless they represented some group. I said that I was his constituent and wanted to discuss a matter important to me. She flatly refused to schedule the appointment unless I was coming as a representative of a group. Now I don’t know if she was huffing something that day, but I have never forgotten that conversation and because I carry a grudge like Stalin, I have not since voted for or liked the man.

But back to the legislation.

The concerned emailer is right. Here it is in the bill:

QUALIFIED NEWSPAPER CORPORATION.—For purposes of this title, a corporation or organization shall be treated as a qualified newspaper corporation if—

‘‘(1) the trade or business of such corporation or organization consists of publishing on a regular basis a newspaper for general circulation,

‘‘(2) the newspaper published by such corporation or organization contains local, national, and international news stories of interest to the general public and the distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose…”

Does this mean that our little weekly, The Columbia Flier, could not qualify under this act to gain nonprofit status unless it publishes national and international news? By the way, I don’t want the Columbia Flier to publish national and international news, that’s what the Washington Post is supposed to do. I want the Flier to tell me what the heck happened in my town, that’s where my information gap is, I have little clue as to what is going on locally. The only time I find out that our County Executive is once again spending money like a drunken sailor is when I pick up the Flier.

I am also bothered by “news stories of interest to the general public.” Who is going to decide that? Sue me, but I am completely disinterested in the High School Lacrosse championships, which the Flier spends a good deal of space reporting. And I’m not happy about the “distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose.” Again, who’s going to decide that?

Am I being educated by the latest goings-on of the Kiwanis Club? Maybe, I don’t know. Or the Lost Dog reports? Or the section on whose kid got that fine scholarship to college in the “Why I prefer Burger King over McDonald’s essay contest”? Is there a difference between being “informed” and “educated”? I can be informed all day long but am I really being educated?

As bothered as I am about those sections, I think the next section really set me off:

‘‘the preparation of the material contained in such newspaper follows methods generally
accepted as educational in character.’’

What the heck does that mean? The “preparation follows methods generally accepted as educational in character”?

So I’m some frosh reporter with her first newspaper job. Never mind it’s some dinky hometown paper, I am thrilled to be working as a professional journalist. I go out to cover my first story about how some farmer’s hogs got out and created a major traffic jam on Main Street. I talk to the farmer, I talk to the disgruntled drivers, I talk to the Mayor and the Health Department Director, I write it all down, take my notes and take a few pictures. I go back to the newspaper office and type it all up, attach a picture and send it off to the editor.

Have I just followed methods generally accepted as educational in nature? When my editor approves the story and sends it off to be printed in the next day’s edition, has he or she followed methods generally accepted as educational in nature? At the printing press, as the morning edition is being run, is it being printed through a method that is generally accepted as educational in nature?

I believe in newspapers and I like the feel of newspapers, it’s a tactile experience you can’t get by reading something online, I’m old school that way. The idea that we might be able to save some newspapers by letting them become nonprofits is not a bad one. However, dictating what stories they are going to cover and how they should cover them, does not preserve one of our most precious freedoms, freedom of the press.

Maybe Senator Cardin (and his staff) need to get “educated.” I know it may sound crazy, but a group of people sat around a table and came up with a wild thing called the First Amendment. And since Senator Cardin is so enamored of “groups” rather than individual constituents, maybe he’d be willing to take their suggestion that the press be free from governmental interference, a bit more seriously.

*** Post Note: I've just been told that the language will be changed from "and" to "or" that it was an oversight. However, even changing that part, doesn't remove the other troubling parts of the bill. I still ask "who decides?"

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Where is the Bathroom, Please?

I love international travel, or any travel for that matter. But going to a country where the culture is different, the language is different and the sites are different from what I am used to, is particularly romantic. The challenge, of course, is in the language. I don’t like having to rely on the good likelihood that I will find English speakers. I like trying to muddle my way, however badly through the host country’s language. I speak a bit of Spanish and read a bit of French and have found if someone speaks to me in French, I automatically respond in Spanish (who knows why). Several years ago when I went to Greece, I listened to tapes for months and months and realized I wasn’t getting it. I finally decided the one phrase you should always know in any language is “Where is the bathroom, please?”

It is no surprise that the National Cable Telecommunications Association (NCTA) produced a white paper on broadband deployment that read like Greek to me. The “Moving the Needle on Broadband: Stimulus Strategies to Spur Adoption and Extend Access Across America” whitepaper is a loving testimony to cable broadband deployment. Between 1996 and 2008, Cable has spent, according to the report, “more than $145 billion in capital to enhance their hybrid fiber-coaxial networks.” In 2008 alone, cable spent $14.6 billion and plans on spending about that same amount in 2009. So why step up to the plate to issue a document regarding the federal government’s plan to spend a paltry 4% of what cable has spent? That 4% is a blip, a speck, a fly in the ointment, if you will.

It’s in the report.

“First, the grants should be used to increase broadband adoption and use;

Second, the grants should be competitively and technologically neutral so as not to affect the private marketplace that must continue to take the lead in broadband deployment;

Third, the grants should further the statutory goal of economic stimulus, that is, they should fund value-producing projects that can be implemented quickly and create new jobs;


Fourth, it is essential, as well as statutorily mandated, that the grant-making programs be transparent, accountable, and coordinated with other agencies providing similar aid.”

And it bears translation. Let me take them one at a time.

“First, the grants should be used to increase broadband adoption and use.”

In other words, according to the report, there are 35 million households that have access to the broadband we the cable industry has built, but they aren’t buying our services. If we could get these people the proper computers and have the federal government subsidize the $50 a month we charge for cable modem, can you imagine how much money we will make?

Δεν βρέθηκαν λέξεις.

“Second, the grants should be competitively and technologically neutral so as not to affect the private marketplace that must continue to take the lead in broadband deployment.”

This roughly translates into: “We have done our best in state after state to kill municipal broadband deployment. Do you know how much money we’ve had to spend on lobbying alone? Our efforts have been quite successful and we want it to stay that way and even though we’re only talking about $7 billion, can you imagine what those yokels out in Indiana will do if they get there hands on some of that dough? They’ll build their own networks, charge people less than half and provide speeds that rock while maintaining net neutrality.”

¿Dónde está el baño, por favor?

“Third, the grants should further the statutory goal of economic stimulus, that is, they should fund value-producing projects that can be implemented quickly and create new jobs.”

This means “Our stocks have been sucky lately and we’ve spent way too much money on lobbying for statewide franchising and we’ve had to lay off a few thousand people. That $7 billion would go a long way in helping us re-hire some of those folks and we could still keep spending millions on greasing politicians and luxury retreats for upper management.”

Wo das Badezimmer bitte ist?

And last,

“Fourth, it is essential, as well as statutorily mandated, that the grant-making programs be
transparent, accountable, and coordinated with other agencies providing similar aid.”

I had a bit of trouble with this one, so let me give it a go. I believe they are saying “that while we have retained the right in various states to not even report where we are building out, cloaking it as proprietary information that might give our competitors an advantage, we demand that the federal government report to us, the cable industry, what they are doing and why they are doing it.”

Does that make sense? Did I get the general tone of the language and inflection? It’s the conjugations that always give me trouble.

목욕탕은 어디에 있는가?

Oh, and the paper also states:

“In defining geographic areas that represent “unserved areas,” agencies should rely on the FCC’s definition of broadband which would denote areas where there is not at least one provider providing Internet access service of at least 200 kbps in one direction.”

I think that’s a generous definition, don’t you?

Где ванная комната пожалуйста?

Ah yes, it’s great to be well traveled, sophisticated and knowledgeable in the ways of the world. And it’s equally important to be able to find the bathroom because you never know what you might have to flush down the toilet.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

The Ramifications of Various Legal Tendons

There are 438 people who live in the town of Mecosta Michigan and boy, are they getting shtupped. The University of Minnesota report “Statewide Video Franchising Legislation: A Comparative Study of Outcomes in Texas, California and Michigan” (March 2009) says so. The rate for Basic + Expanded Basic cable went from $41.33 in 2006 to $69.71 in 2009. Now you could say that people in Ingham County got it even worse, their rates went from $38.75 to $74.20 in the same time period. However, the difference is the folks in Mecosta didn’t even get a “thank you ma’am.”

It’s important to look at the per channel rate in the report. Ingham County residents saw their per channel rate increase from 51 cents to 98 cents. The town of Mecosta’s residents saw their channel rate increase from $1.15 to $2.79. Meaning, Mecosta cable subscribers are paying a way lot more for a way lot less.

In 2008, Minnesota was just on the brink of passing statewide cable franchising when the legislator sponsoring the bill was convinced to commend the matter to a study. Gee, sounds like what just happened in Maryland. The Department of Commerce was instructed to commission the study and so they did with the University of Minnesota.

And guess what the researchers found out? Come on…20 points for the right answer!

Yep, competition doesn’t lower prices and video service providers cherry-pick service areas.

“Statewide video franchising—or in some states the practice of state‐issued franchises—has led to an increase in new providers, but the numbers are underwhelming….Texas reports occurrences when cable companies requested amendments to remove cities and towns from their service area. In 2005 and 2006, no removals were recorded for municipalities in Texas. However, 2007‐2009 saw an uptick in removals, totaling several dozen. Scores more were collectively added to the service areas of cable companies, as their rivals jockeyed for competitive positions in the state. All in all, the largest cable companies in Texas expanded their number of municipalities served. However, it is unclear from the data whether cable companies dropped low‐income regions.”

The study cites the industry arguments for statewide franchising.

“Among their many arguments, proponents of statewide video franchising assert that statewide video franchising will:
1. result in a modernization of the video infrastructure of many communities during a time of rapid technological change;
2. result in the employment of thousands of people during tough economic times and high unemployment;
3. reduce regulations and create a market environment of greater competition as it lowers barriers of entry for video service providers; and
4. provide additional competition which will result in lower rates and better service for all customers.”

Very, very convincing stuff. The creation of jobs argument is the best, especially in these tough economic times. Glad that’s working out.

The study also provides a snapshot of what has happened to PEG access television in the three states. I won’t enumerate it here because I’ve been howling about it for four years now, see the archives. It’s what we all know.

Which now makes it even more curious that Idaho, of all places, has just passed a bill through their Senate for statewide video franchising. Hey Idaho, statewide franchising is soooo last year, didn’t you get that memo? Maybe you should get this report. Or maybe somebody on the House side in Idaho should call for a study, it really is the latest thing, kinda like Baby Boomers on Facebook.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Oh Maryland, My Maryland!

Here’s how I got the story. Seems a staffer in Maryland Delegate Sheila Hixson’s office (D-District 20), woke up one night and said to himself, “Gee, I think I’ll write a piece of statewide franchising legislation.” No one can testify whether a hallucinogenic was involved. Unfortunately for the staffer, he didn’t take time to go look at other statewide franchising legislation and his final product was not only the worst piece of statewide franchising legislation, it was practically unintelligible.

The other story I heard was Hixson looked at what the staffer had wrought and said to herself “I know what I’ll do, I’ll introduce this at the last possible hour on the last day that bills can be introduced and I won’t bother to pick up the phone and find out what Montgomery County, the county that I represent, thinks about this.” Good job Hixson! I’m sure it made the County Executive proud to know ya.

So on Friday the 13th Hixson introduced the bill thereby breaking a metaphorical mirror, and incurred not only bad luck but probably plenty of heart-burn. She had it all figured out. Monday, the 16th was a holiday, nobody would see this thing until at the earliest, Tuesday the 17th. And if a hearing is swiftly held on the following Thursday the 26th, how much opposition could she really get? Badda Bing, Badda Boom! The state steals almost $80 million in franchise fees from the cities and counties, like candy from a baby. Saweet!

Unfortunately, what Delegate Hixson did not understand is that the DC-Maryland-Virginia chapter of NATOA, CAPATOA, has been meeting monthly for years to discuss policy and mobilization should there be statewide franchising introduced. During that time, CAPTOA leadership has been educating the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League about statewide franchising. Even to the point of attending their conferences to hand out literature as to why statewide franchising sucks.

John Lyons, administrator in Anne Arundel County discovered the bill on return to his office after the holiday. He forwarded it to Lonni Moffett, Director of the Communications Office in Takoma Park. She in turn forwarded it to the Baltimore-Washington CAPATOA listserv and the phones began ringing off the hook. By Friday, the 20th, there was a big conference call lead by Mitzi Herrera, Cable Administrator for Montgomery County. During that conference call strategy was set, a panel of those who would testify was set and plans for attending the hearing were set.

Further, Delegate Hixson didn’t get that PEG is pretty robust in Maryland and PEG producers just love showing up with their cameras and aren’t shy about testifying as to why PEG is important. In addition, I am sure that Delegate Hixson didn’t understand that Richard Turner, Executive Director of Montgomery Community Television, was perfectly willing to rent a bus and bring his producers, board members and others up to the hearing, making it a standing-room-only crowd.

Looking back on it, I almost feel sorry for the Delegate. There was one person who spoke in favor of the legislation, one of her staffers. After he spoke and before she invited the opposition, the Delegate allowed that there would be no action taken on the bill, instead, she felt it prudent that the bill be “studied” for two years and she welcomed those who would speak in opposition as part of the beginning dialogue for that study. Thus began the stream of panels and people, researched and excellent testimony.

There was a bit of agreement that re-arranging the telecommunications tax paid by phone companies might be something the state would want to do. However, to a person, everyone was opposed to the statewide franchising part of the bill.

I had a moment of sheer epiphany when both Verizon and Comcast spoke in opposition to statewide franchising. We had heard that perhaps Comcast would support the bill and come up with amendments. But both companies told Ms. Hixson that statewide franchising was unnecessary, they had excellent relations with the local governments and they were content to continue those local agreements. The only thing I can think of is that both Verizon and Comcast knew the bill was a loser and they didn’t want to sour those excellent relationships by wasting political capital on it.

So now it goes to study, and we know there’s always a possibility it could come up again in two years, but somehow I doubt it. Hixson has been around a long time and I don’t think she would want to make herself look foolish by submitting to another righteous smack-down.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Comment On San Francisco

Just in case you don't open up the comments at the end of my post...from Zane Blaney, ED of Access San the "You Gotta Be Frickin Kidding Me" Category of Comments...

Zane Blaney, Access SF E.D. has left a new comment on your post "DIVCA’s Chickens Come Home to Roost":

The SF Franchise Fee is about $8 million. Since the 1980's the City has set aside .2% of the 5% for PEG. Today that's $360,000 which is divided three ways between the PEG channels, thus, the $120,000 for public access. The rest goes into the General Fund. The $120,000 is about what it costs to pay the bills for the building. There is no staff at that level.Millions are coming for capital, but only $120,000 for ops.

That's why Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi has introduced a resolution urging the SF Congressional and State Legislative delegations to reform PEG funding. That reso is directed at Pelosi, Feinstein and Boxer. It will be heard in a SF Committee on Monday, Feb. 23 and by the Full Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, March 3rd. This is the first time a California city has taken the initiative to fight back at DIVCA. All the fun facts and info are available at Join the SOS Coalition!

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Friday, February 13, 2009

DIVCA’s Chickens Come Home to Roost

I keep asking myself when will I stop being surprised, shocked and saddened by attacks on Public access television? I think the answer is never.

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in Fresno, California, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I spent my disco years running up to San Francisco. During college, San Francisco was my second home; I love everything about the City. From the St. Francis hotel elevator to Broadway barkers to breakfast in Chinatown. San Francisco is so much more button-down than LA and yet even more free wheeling when it comes to trends and new ideas. How many social justice marches have I attended in San Francisco?

Yet, without embarrassment or shame, San Francisco is cutting Access San Francisco’s budget by $500,000. In the RFP that went out for bid for an organization that would manage Public access television, there it was, a budget of $120,000. I am not sure how anyone could run anything in San Francisco on a budget of $120,000, much less a television station whose mission is to train residents how to produce community programming.

It comes back to the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act (DIVCA) of 2006. Cable funding for Public access in San Francisco ceased on January 1, 2009. Access San Francisco will be closing its doors on June 30, 2009 unless something changes.

I estimate that the City receives $12 million per year in franchise fees, based upon a rough calculation of subscribers, it may be more, it may be less, but I’m probably in the ball park. And I fully sympathize that these are desperate financial times, but they can’t set aside 10% to 15% of those franchise fees for Public access? Especially in a City with such a vibrant and diverse population, a population sorely underserved by commercial media.

All of this is especially bizarre given that on January 6, 2009 Mayor Gavin Newsom issued a proclamation for San Francisco Community Television Corporation Day, to honor Access San Francisco’s 20 years of service to the City. Was that an “I love you, now go away” gesture?

I’m never sure what good it does to have non-residents weigh in on these topics. But Access San Francisco has posted contact information for the city council and mayor’s office at . It is important that the City be petitioned to adequately fund public access.

And this is just the beginning of the fallout of DIVCA for access in California. We have ex-Speaker of the Assembly, Fabian Nunez, to thank for that peccadillo. He’s now at Mercury Public Affairs, working his little heart out on getting more crappy legislation passed no doubt.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Negative Social Trends Traced to DTV Transition

Dateline: April 2010

Some interesting social trends are emerging across the country. A recent article in “All Things Baby” magazine reported an enormous and unusual spike in births during the month of March.

“We’ve seen birthrates suddenly jump to an all time high,” said David Umpdefratz. “We aren’t quite sure why.”

In addition to the increase in stork activity, communities are reporting that petty theft crime has rapidly increased. One jurisdiction, Nowhere, Nebraska, found itself having to increase its patrols at video stores because shelves were being wiped clean of DVD’s.

“You know it’s bad when ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ keeps disappearing over and over again,” said Sheriff Rue LaDay. “The stores can’t even keep ‘Ishtar’ on the shelf.”

Other communities report increases in the theft of DVD and Blue Ray players, video games, IPhones, board games and belly-lint removers.

A prominent religious counseling organization (that wishes to remain anonymous) said it was overwhelmed by couples seeking advice on filing for divorce.

“We can’t keep up with it, couples who have been married ten, fifteen even twenty-five years, are flooding our phones lines and offices,” said a spokesperson. “It’s like they suddenly woke up one day and realized that they had nothing in common and in fact, truly hated each other.”

Social psychologist Mary Upton believes these trends are somehow related.

“We starting seeing some of these behaviors emerge on June 13, 2009, the day after the DTV transition,” says Upton, “And they have continued to climb as time has gone on. It’s like New York after the blackout of 1965, people found themselves with too much time on their hands and began acting out in unusual ways.”

Although Congress delayed the digital transition, there were still millions of people who were unprepared for its eventuality. As late as February 2009, there were two million households on the waiting list for coupons to get converter boxes, not to mention the millions who had received the coupons but the coupons had expired or the millions who had not applied for the coupons. Between February 2009 and June 12, 2009, the rush to get the converter boxes was so high, manufacturers couldn’t keep up with demand. Millions of households lost their analog signals and their television sets went dark.

“Television is such an important societal control,” says Upton. “When people watch TV they become more placid, even lazy, so they don’t have the urge to engage in certain behaviors, like romance for instance. Also, when people watch TV they don’t really have to interact with one another. That’s why we are seeing the spike in the divorce rate, when these couples weren’t interacting they didn’t realize they were miserable or that they had married the wrong person.”

One benefit from so many households not getting free TV has been the re-emergence of some positive family interaction and earlier bed times.

“We are also seeing an increase in families playing Parcheesi or Life,” reports Upton. “Children are taking up coloring again and Crayola sales have gone through the roof. Also, without TV, children don’t mind going to bed at 8:00 or 9:00, they’re pretty bored by that point.”

No one is quite sure how many households are actually capable of receiving a digital signal but don’t get one because of terrain or building obstruction. The broadcast industry has never been able to quite make digital broadcast as reliable as the old analog signals. Some analysts guess there are millions of these “digital ready” households that for a majority of the day, lose their signal.

“There are millions that don’t have the converter boxes and then there are millions that either have the converter boxes or have digital ready sets but can’t get a signal,” said Upton. “There is no good data on how many we are talking about. But I do know, until these issues get resolved we’re going to see more babies, more theft of lousy “B” movies and more couples filing for divorce.”

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Blind to the Law

at&t keeps making these “presentations” in places they say they say they are going to build. They pull Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access managers into a room and extol the virtues of PEG on U-Verse. The infamous channel 99 ghetto for PEG channels. The PEG “solution.”

“We’ve lowered the load time to 8 seconds.”

“Your viewers will be able to watch city council meetings from other cities.”

“The quality is great! 480 x 480.”

“It only takes 4 clicks on the menu to find your channel.”

I can’t remember the last time I waited 8 seconds for anything to load. I get irritated when it takes more than 10 seconds to put the hot in my coffee. Around my house, it’s speed-racer time when a program goes to commercial, who can be the quickest to mute it or change the channel? I can barely stand to watch county council meetings in my own county, why on earth would I want to watch Anne Arundel or Baltimore County meetings? The pixels are the equivalent of a cell phone and no, I don’t want to click, click, click, click to get to the school district snow closing notices.

I’m glad somebody is finally taking some action. The Alliance for Community Media with the Alliance for Communications Democracy and a host of other organizations, filed a petition at the FCC on January 30th for a declaratory ruling that AT&T’s delivery of PEG is contrary to the Communications Act. This petition comes on the heels of a much encouraging Congressional hearing in September (that AT&T completely snubbed) and the heels of a tersely worded letter to the FCC by the representatives at the hearing, telling the FCC that changes in the cable industry should not result in PEG being treated as second-class.

The petition is asking the FCC to determine if AT&T is violating the law. What I am really waiting anxiously for is AT&T’s response, it should be juicy!

“We’re not violating the law, because in order for us to violate the law, we would have to acknowledge the law and agree with it. And we certainly are not acknowledging it or agreeing to it, so there!” That seems to be the attitude du jour in corners political and industrial.

The implications for this are farther reaching than just old Ma Bell and her particular prism of perception. The big boy cable operators have mentioned moving PEG to IPTV delivery and “video hubs” and the regionalization of PEG channels. They haven’t aggressively pursued this because as usual they are watching and waiting, if at&t can get away with it, then it’s everybody in the pool!

Throughout the petition it was the pointed out that “open” captioning is not the same as “close” captioning. Especially given that digital televisions allow one to increase the font, change the font color and change the font background. Having to squint at a rapid pace CNN type scroll is not the same. I know, at&t will claim that people who are deaf always have fabulous eyesight, so no problem.

Interestingly enough, I had a conversation with a fellow who worked at one of the more outspoken organizations for the blind. I explained how U-verse worked, the menu driven thing, and he suggested that there was possibly a Disabilities Act violation at work. Think about it, if you are blind you can punch the buttons on your remote and voila, you are at a channel. And if you are blind you cannot navigate the at&t menu driven one lane country road to PEG. You have to actually see the screen in order to choose the PEG channels. Of course, as one cable operator said to me “blind people don’t watch television.”

Well I guess that settles that, if the industry says so it must be true.

It should be good, excellent reading when at&t files their counter petition. I wonder how many lawyers they already got working on that. And I wonder, what kind of lobbying effort will they pursue to get the Communications Act changed in their favor? My advice to at&t, next time there’s a hearing on Capitol Hill and you’ve been called to testify, try to do your best to show up.

To see the petition and press release go to:

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Friday, January 30, 2009

LA Rips Red Carpet Out From Under Public Access Television

Not long after Los Angeles stopped being a farming community and became “Hollywood” the competition was on to outdo New York City. But now, even a century later, LA is still just the ugly stepsister that never can quite attain the sophistication, style and intellectual heft that is Manhattan. I say this as a former Angelino, who came to love all that is LA and who still misses the crazy laid-back attitudes and colorful demeanor.

Of course I look at LA and shake my head. Under the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act (DIVCA) passed by the California State Legislature, Time Warner was able to go to the city and let them know TW would be shutting down all the public access television studios, twelve in all. However, Los Angeles would still receive $5 million a year for Public, Educational and Government access from TW (or roughly $1.7 million to be split evenly between the P, E and G). If LA were willing to split it evenly, which it ain’t. And of course, Public access has gone from eleven channels to just one, LA 36.

To really understand this, I need to provide a bit of history on LA 36. Sometime in 1999 (I think) I was in Los Angeles to garner support for Public access and for LA 36, which at that time was the city-wide Public access channel. A producer of a show called “Colin and His Sleazy Friends,” was creating porn and getting it on access. In my opinion at the time, I felt Colin could easily be banned as obscene, not because he had naked ladies running around the set, but because those naked ladies were engaging in inserting various objects into their bodies. It seems the then Mayor woke up in the middle of the night, caught the show and immediately set off to shut down LA 36. I visited council offices, I pleaded with the City Attorney, don’t eliminate LA 36, prosecute Colin. This was to no avail, LA 36 became the “educational” channel and frankly has done an exceptional job as an educational channel.

The access channels run by Time Warner are separate and apart from what LA 36 became. Now those channels are being eliminated and all public access programming will have to fit on LA 36. But LA 36 is the educational channel and that is its culture. So to get it, you have to read this:

“Until further notice, LA36 (LACTAC) will carry the “Best Of” Public Access programming in the City of Los Angeles. “Best Of” will be decided by an advisory committee who will review content on a quarterly basis. Approved content will then be schedule on a First-come, First-serve basis in the station’s allocated time slots. The remainder of submitted content will be housed on a website hosted by LA36 (same submission rules apply). The City will be unable to provide Public Access studios due to changes in state law. In addition, LA36 does not have studio capacity or equipment for loan. However, LA36 does provide production services for a minimum fee of $500 dollars per show. Please contact the LA36 offices for more information.”

Is the city begging for a lawsuit? T’would seem so. And I don’t get how if you dedicate one third of the money to Public access, like you should do, you can’t provide a studio?

Back to New York. Unlike Los Angeles, New York has a robust Public access facility and channels. They even have a channel dedicated to nothing but youth programming, run by youth, how amazing is that? Four channels just in Manhattan (never mind the boroughs who all have their own operations and channels) and I believe they have a $4 million budget, just for Public access. That’s the sophistication, style and intellectual heft I was talking about, the stuff that LA just can never quite get to.

Shoot, you don’t even need to compare to New York, in a short amount of time Fresno (where I grew up) and Clovis (where I went to high school) in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, will have an all new Public access facility, studios and channels. So LA is woefully inadequate compared to their plain-Jane neighbors north of the Grapevine. Maybe Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (LA) should pick up the phone and ask Mayor Bob Whalen (Clovis) how it is a cow-town in the middle of the state is about to best the metropolis of the south. And maybe Mayor Whalen will be able to ask Mayor Villaraigosa why he is so bent on shutting down community voices and free speech?

Is there more we should know about Los Angeles politics? Stuff that Mayor Villaraigosa doesn't want Public access producers like Leslie Dutton (Full Disclosure Network) talking about? Mmmm.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Broadband Rolls Out, DTV Clams Up

I have a brother in Missouri who lives on and works over 300 acres of land. He’s a cattle rancher. I rarely receive emails from him and I'm really careful about what I send him. No attachments, no embedded video or pictures, etc. If it’s not plain text, he can’t/won’t open them because it takes him forever and ever amen to download them. My brother’s livelihood depends on information. What is the weather forecast? What’s the price of beef on the exchange? What about the price of soy? (He grows that too). What about hay or alfalfa?

Yet, even though he needs the latest, hottest technology in order to keep up and make sure that he can dodge a bad situation so that this year and all his hard work will be profitable, he is stuck on antiquated dial up. I can hardly think of another person who needs broadband right this minute more than my brother does.

So I am thrilled that Congress is including broadband in the stimulus package. Simultaneously I am concerned about who will get the $6 billion. BusinessWeek reports that the broadband bill is disappointing nearly everyone, and by “everyone” they mean the telecom companies.

Telecom companies are sniffing that it will take way too long to get the money, that the process of doling out grants, loans and loan guarantees will be too bureaucratic. But I would hazard a guess that regardless of the process, they will bully their way to the front of the line, hand held straight out to get the lion’s share of the $6 billion.

The piece missing in the BusinessWeek article is where do municipalities stand in the mix? Nary a municipal official was quoted, even though municipalities have been at the forefront of the broadband conversation for years. I know of towns on the brink of dying because their manufacturing base disappeared and they can’t attract new business because they have no broadband infrastructure. Therefore, they cannot create jobs, provide educational opportunities to their children, and grow their capacity and so on. They are stuck in a vicious rut "we need 21st century solutions but we only have 20th century technology."

It is my fervent hope that this is the beginning of municipalities being able to build their own broadband infrastructure in robust and meaningful ways. We have been too long at the mercy of the telecom companies; we can’t afford another “business plan” when so much of the country needs a “survival plan.”

On another note, deja vu all over again, the DTV transition faces a deadline delay. According to the AP, there are currently 2.6 million coupon requests on a waiting list and it is estimated that more than 6.5 million households would lose television reception on February 17th if the transition proceeds as planned.

I love how the new date chosen is June 12th. I racked my brain as to why that particular date was chosen, then I realized, it was a Friday. Are these people insane?

6.5 million households will have their TV’s go dark just in time for the weekend? Does anyone have any idea what it is like to spend an entire weekend without television? All that dead air time, staring at the walls, having to actually interact with your spouse or your kids. Not to mention, who are you going to complain to? It’s a weekend! Folks with nonfunctioning TV’s won’t be able to complain to city hall or congress, they won’t be there. I’d urge the broadcasters to make sure extra phone lines and staff are standing by (you know how broadcasters usually work with a slimmer crew on the weekends). I'm betting money that crime will spike. Idle eyes and ears are the devils playground you know.

Sascha Meinrath has an hysterical picture on his blog regarding the DTV transition (it’s from you must check it out. Go to:

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Monday, January 05, 2009

First We Celebrate, Then We Mourn

I am very excited about 2009. Personally I have some fun stuff planned. Professionally I will be expanding my business, adding a larger nonprofit component. As for telecommunications, there will be opportunities this year for modifying or overturning the harmful state legislation of the past few years. And we can all look forward to a “new” FCC being created. There is much to celebrate.

In the midst of optimism comes a bitter pill. After years of effort, PBS in Rhode Island will officially take over PEG access stations and programming. When I say years of effort, I remember PBS working to get control over PEG in Rhode Island dating back to 1998 and I would assume it started long before then. There has been a long standing battle between PBS and PEG, with the aggression emanating from PBS, not PEG.

PBS has been after franchise fees. PBS has been after channels. PBS derides PEG and hurls snipes about PEG production values. While the PEG community has always been supportive of PBS, even to rallying its troops to defend PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on Capitol Hill, there has never been anything but a spit in the eye to PEG coming from PBS.

In July 1998, Ervin S. Duggan, President of PBS, said access channels were “underutilized resources in the country” and that "access channels fail because of a vaguely defined mission and lack of editorial intelligence." This was part of his attempt to take over Public access in Hawaii.

The following year, WETA teamed up with the Freedom Forum in a bid to start a “public affairs network” beginning with trying to wrest control of six access channels in the D.C. metro area. Again, they talked about how underutilized the channels were. But when they presented their programming plan for the access channels, there was no more than four hours of American public affairs programming each day and the rest of the time was filled with BBC re-runs. How enlightening. Needless to say they failed to get the access channels.

I personally will never forget the Aspen Institute meeting where Terence Smith (producer for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) represented PBS and I represented the Alliance for Community Media. The Center for Governmental Studies played a video from a New Hampshire PEG channel as part of their presentation on “Producing Election Coverage for Your Community.” The video was a direct interview of John Kerry, done by a teenager. It was less of an interview than an opportunity to turn the camera on Kerry and allow him to speak without interruption or spin or the two cents of the producer. Kerry waxed on and on, looking straight into the camera, covering issues from foreign policy to economic reform.

Mr. Smith interrupted the presentation, loudly proclaiming how “boring” it was and laughing about its production values. Of course that did not sit well with me. I countered that if the Kerry interview was boring perhaps it was because Kerry himself was boring and maybe the American people needed to see that. And maybe instead of polishing politicians up, throwing them softball questions and making rock stars out of them, we should just sit them in a room with a camera in their face and let them speak, so we can really get to know them. Terence Smith’s proclamation essentially shut down the presentation and it was clear to me that like so many in the PBS culture, he just didn’t “get it.”

The PBS plan in Rhode Island includes the loss of live coverage of town council meetings and requires the towns to drive their tapes over to PBS’s studios, and “every effort will be made to play them in a timely fashion.” Residents who want to get their programming on must be aware that “PBS will not broadcast anything that has overt corporate sponsorship, advertising or is a product pitch of any sort" on the access channel. PBS will only do that on the PBS channel. In the transition, South Kingstown High School will lose its direct live feed. The videography teacher at the high school reported that he felt “out of the loop” in the changeover and it will be a loss to the community to no longer have its own local station.

Ya think?

The folks who were running PEG and now will be working for PBS to run PEG presented a workshop at the Northeast Conference of the Alliance for Community Media a few months ago. It was something like “we do it differently in Rhode Island and here’s how we make it work.” I and a colleague had a good laugh over that one. Here’s a news flash…it doesn’t work in Rhode Island because the state has never allowed it to work and everybody in the nation that knows anything about PEG shakes their head whenever Rhode Island is brought up.

So in the midst of celebration, we have much to mourn. PBS finally got what it wanted, control of the access channels in Rhode Island (not to mention what we don't know about the money). It’ll be great, because as everyone knows, PBS is sooooo committed to local programming.

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