Media reform movement goes on the offensive

With a series of bills recently introduced in Congress, the media reform movement’s DC wing has finally gone on the offensive. The Community Broadband Act, the Broadband Data Improvement Act, and the Local Community Radio Act would break down significant barriers to expanding community media throughout the country.

“Up to this point with a GOP Congress, it’s been all about blocking the bad stuff,” Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott said.

A list of their campaigns bears that out, imploring people to Save The Internet, Stop Postal Rate Hikes, Rescue Internet Radio and Protect Public Media. Now, after four years of damage control, Free Press and its allies are starting to push for an expansion of local media and for new tools to hold media corporations accountable.

The Community Broadband Act, sponsored by Representatives Rick Boucher (D-VA) and Fred Upton (R-MI), would authorize municipalities to build their own broadband networks. It would override bans of such projects on the books in 14 states. The League of Cities and other local advocates have pushed for the federal law to return their authority and flexibility to address local gaps in broadband deployment.

Pushing for proactive changes opens the way for a fundamentally different relationship between lobbyists in DC and community activists. The process of blocking bad legislation in Congress or flawed FCC regulations has put the DC groups at the helm with grassroots organizations helping with education and mobilization. We are beginning to see a more balanced partnership, with the legislative wonks responding to needs that communities have defined for themselves – removing legislative barriers and increasing access to helpful information.

The Broadband Data Improvement Act, sponsored by Daniel Inouye (D-HI) in the Senate and Ed Markey (D-MA) in the House, would correct serious flaws in the way the federal government measures broadband Internet availability and usage, making it easier for consumers to hold providers accountable. The FCC currently counts as broadband any connection of 200 kbps, which is closer to dial-up speeds than today’s standard connections over DSL or cable. It also counts an entire zip code as having broadband access as long as a single individual in that zip code has it.

The Digital Expansion Initiative, my program at People’s Production House, is partnering with the NYU Department of Environmental Medicine to conduct a citywide phone survey to get decent data on of Internet usage in New York City. These statistics will not give a perfect picture, which is why we are also partnering with community organizations to interview people who have limited access to the Internet. But the survey is a critical piece of the project, since we cannot interview everyone and we need to have a sense of how our interviewees’ experiences are. The Broadband Data Improvement Act would give everyone access to meaningful data on Internet usage, making it easier to identify which communities should be engaged in processes to expand participation in the online world.

If the improved data collection reveals inequities in Internet access, the Community Broadband Act will be key to addressing them. Action by municipal governments has become a key tactic for promoting high speed Internet usage where private companies do not offer the service or offer it at a prohibitively high price.

This trend of proactive legislation will continue into the fall. The bipartisan Local Community Radio Act of 2007 could double or even triple the number of low power FM stations on the dial, according to Prometheus Radio Project, which helps build LPFM stations and is advocating for the legislation. It would also permit new stations in major urban areas – everywhere except New York, LA, and Chicago.

“Those who believe that policy change starts from the grassroots believe that a victory of this magnitude is more than just a media reform milestone, but a chance to build real, lasting institutions that will help people,” Prometheus’s Hannah Sassaman said. “Those people will lead the media policy fights of the future.”

The bill corrects a shortcoming in the law from 2000 that originally created the LPFM license category. In response to pressure from National Public Radio and industry lobbyists, who claimed the new stations would cause interference, Congress limited the new licenses to sparsely populated areas with equally sparse radio dials. Congress initiated a study that disproved the industry claims, but never followed up – until Prometheus and its allies in DC began a push to change the law.

New community media outlets, in turn, will make it easier to hold the line if the tide turns back in favor of incumbent corporations. The people who benefit from these new laws will be able to come to DC in the future to push for further positive reforms.

“Damn straight,” says Sassaman. “Community activists have proven that they are hotshot lobbyists.”

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