I’m heading up to Troy, NY, this morning for a “New York State Strategy Session for the Future of Community Media & Media Justice.”
Today’s get-together at the Sanctuary for Independent Media is a precursor to a larger event tomorrow called interAct Troy!, a community driven skill share and party. It’s a great chance to check out the Sanctuary, visit friends up there, and promote the Allied Media Conference.
There will also be the second round of the strategy session with Dee Dee Halleck, George Stoney, Michael Eisenmenger, and Steve Pierce, which is a not-to-be-missed combination of folks, especially if you care about New York and the future of public access television.
The focus of today’s discussion is the “Omnibus Telecommunications Reform Act of 2007,” sponsored by State Assembly Member Richard Brodsky. The bill is a mammoth one that would have extensive impact on the lives of every single person in New York who uses the Internet, telephone, or television.
This bill represents an interesting moment in the life of state franchising for video service. Last year, as you may recall, Verizon and AT&T spent tens of millions of dollars trying to pass national franchising legislation called the COPE bill through Congress. Simultaneously, they pushed similar legislation in a number of statehouses.
The telcos’ goal was to smooth their entry into the TV market and they did not mind clear-cutting local media in the process. Many cities in Texas have already lost their public access channels as a result of the state franchising legislation there.
From what I know, the idea of proactive, public interest-based state franchising legislation was initially put forward in Pennsylvania by Beth McConnell, then of Penn PIRG (now with the media reform umbrella group the Media and Democracy Coalition). Here’s Beth’s August 2006 testimony on a Verizon-sponsored state franchising bill:
While we do not believe state-level franchise legislation is necessary, we would support streamlining the franchise negotiation process by creating a strong, pro-consumer state agreement that could serve as a fall-back in instances where a local agreement cannot be reached in a reasonable period of time.
The idea emerged from the unique circumstances in Philadelphia, where I was briefly the coordinator of the Philadelphia Grassroots Cable Coalition that included Penn PIRG and others. TV watchers in that town were suffering under a Comcast monopoly.
The cable giant is based there and basically gets to write its own franchise agreement, with little oversight from the local government. It also controls all of the local sports programming, which it has historically used to its competitive advantage. (Much to the surprise of Free The Flyers followers, Verizon was able to ink a deal late last year for Philly sports programming on its FIOS system.) Philadelphia also has no active public access channels.
So, from that perspective, Philadelphia residents had nothing to lose and maybe a little to gain from a Verizon statewide franchise. I laid this out pretty extensively back then in a post called “Is there hope for pay-tv competition in Philadelphia?”
Since the local franchising process was so clearly broken in Philadelphia, it would seem to make sense to seek redress in Harrisburg (where Verizon holds greater sway).
(The idea of a ‘good’ state franchising bill also has roots in the Alliance for Community Media’s pragmatic approach to the COPE bill. Vermont has a statewide franchise and a healthy public access system, but that comes from an earlier era and the state’s size makes franchise aggregation sensible.)
The main extra-legislative force behind the NYS bill is the Communication Workers of America, especially the New York Local. They think “The NYS Telecommunications Reform Act is the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread…”
The fact that CWA wants the state to require and to subsidize telecommunications deployment is no surprise. But the bill contains provisions for net neutrality, which CWA has previously opposed. Seems like the influence of the Local may have had something to do with that.
Albany being Albany, there is no way to know what will happen to this bill (A03980 for those of you keeping score at home). Spitzer might try to kill it so he can push his own plan for broadband deployment in New York. Or telco lobbyists could try to rewrite the bill.
The CWA and Brodsky, along with media reform organizations like Consumers Union, NYPIRG, Common Cause, and Free Press, will be holding a press conference to tout the bill in Albany on Tuesday, the 15th. Stay tuned here for my thoughts on that, a report on today’s meeting in Troy, and a breakdown of the bill itself.