Seeing Issues Whole
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deals with a wide universe of issues. Licensed and unlicensed spectrum, wireline and wireless telecommunications, white spaces, broadband, satellites, auctions, international coordination and, of course, media, are at the top of the Commission’s agenda. A wide universe indeed—but a universe nevertheless. FCC commissioners need to see this universe whole. They should never allow themselves to fall into the trap of segmenting the issues, because what goes on in one issue’s galaxy pulls and tugs on every other part of the universe. We are learning this in climate change; we need to learn it in communications change, too. Very often our tendency to segment issues causes us to lose sight of the inter-connectedness of things. We pay a high cost for this—not just commissioners, but all of us.
We live in one vast communications ecosystem. What goes on in one part of this ecosystem has direct and often far-reaching consequences on its other parts. For example, it is increasingly impossible to compartmentalize telecommunications and media industries. How would you describe Comcast? It is telecommunications and media, broadcast and broadband, traditional as well as new media. What started as a cable company distributing broadcast TV channels has moved into content production as well. Its activities cover a hugely wide gamut of the communications ecosystem. And now it is an awesomely powerful gatekeeper to the online world, too. A very few other powerful Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon and AT&T—once plain old telephone companies—are also moving into positions of gatekeeper control, replete with the power to distribute to consumers, or deny them, their favored media content. Even huge online players like Google blur the boundaries as they begin building fiber to deliver their products and services. These huge companies begin to look alike, don’t they?
So when Comcast, on the heels of completing its acquisition of the huge NBC-Universal complex, announced recently that it now wants to take over Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second largest cable company, let’s realize that this is much, much more than just absorbing another cable company. Rather, this is extending the deep Comcast content/distribution foot-print over evermore markets across the nation. Proponents of the transaction argue that in many of these markets, Comcast and Time Warner Cable don’t compete, therefore the deal cannot be anti-competitive. I’m sorry—I don’t get that one. If a merger extends the influence of the number one company across those areas previously controlled by the number two company, that’s pro-competitive?
What’s at stake in this deal? Start with consumer costs. Cable bills have far out-stripped the cost-of-living index for years. Broadband prices in our country are a joke—by some measures we’re down in the 30-something of nations when it comes to what we pay for the speeds we get. Riga, Latvia consumers get roughly the same service as residents of Washington, DC—at about one-fifth of the price. With many areas dependent upon one or two providers of high-speed broadband, consumer choice doesn’t exist. And while Comcast trumpets all the alleged “economies of scale” the combination will bring, I don’t hear it saying that it will pass those savings on to customers in the form of lower bills. In fact, I don’t hear the company saying it will even commit to allowing rates to increase more slowly!
Then think about the Open Internet (sometimes anemically termed “network neutrality”). The hope, indeed the premise, of the Internet is openness—power-at-the-edge, driven by consumers themselves, no gatekeepers allowed. Foolishly, too many of us believed the Internet was on auto-pilot to achieve this openness. It was supposedly so dynamic that the thrust of its own technology would preclude anyone trying to erect toll booths, slow the delivery of services, or block content. Instead we are witnessing the tragic undoing of that promise.
“There is no education in the second kick of a mule,” Senator Fritz Hollings, my old boss, often reminded us. We need to learn from our past. Of course businesses will strive for market power, gatekeeper control, and maximum profits. That’s in the drinking water of capitalism. No technology, the broadband Internet included, is ever going to get around it. That’s where government, the public interest, and regulatory oversight must enter the picture. Nothing new about that—it goes back more than one hundred years in our country’s history, and farther than that in economic thought—all the way back to Adam Smith himself, who warned against unbridled enterprise. He even opined in The Wealth of Nations that when regulation “is in support of the workman, it is always just and equitable.” My bet is that Smith would agree that the Open Internet protects the working man and woman, the student, the teacher, the activist, and the advocate. The Open Internet will not be guaranteed by the absence of public policy oversight. It can be safeguarded only by enforceable rules of the road that protect the interests of consumers and citizens.
Which brings us to democracy. How is that at stake, you ask? We see more and more of our public conversation, our civic dialogue, moving online. But if a handful of giant companies can favor their content over that of someone they compete with or they just don’t like; if these powerful few can dictate where we go and don’t go on the Internet; if they can prioritize content; if they can block sites they disfavor; if they can determine what news we see and what we won’t—then how is our democracy benefitted? How is our civic dialogue enriched? The Internet was not invented to short-change democracy; it was developed to enrich it.
So it’s all connected, isn’t it? Media ownership is broadband transmission is advanced telecommunications is the Open Internet is content diversity is the public interest is democracy. Don’t let regulators, legislators, or anyone else tell you they will focus on one at the expense of the others. Or that real media ownership reform is off the table this year because there are other things to do. Yes, I’m pleased that the FCC is finally beginning to move against the joint sales and shared services agreements that allow media conglomerates to take over other stations without technically owning them. Hats off to the Chairman. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Mergers have to be denied, not ritually blessed; ownership rules have to be tightened, not just kept as they are; and public interest oversight has to be implemented across media. The spectrum auctions the FCC is laying the groundwork for are about ownership, too. They are about who gets to use the people’s spectrum, what power big companies will have over these airwaves and wires, what success minorities and women will have in getting a piece of the spectrum action, and how to avoid a few big players obtaining gatekeeper control. They are about the prices consumers pay, the information citizens receive, the Open Internet, and much more. It’s not a separate issue.
So the presumption that we can’t accomplish meaningful media ownership this year is Exhibit Number One against the methodological error and the substantive cost we pay when we fail to appreciate the interconnectedness of issues. My friends at the FCC, indeed all of us, need to understand not just this inter-connectedness, but its centrality to the future of our country. Unless we find a way to make the tools of communications serve each and every one of us, putting the common good first, we don’t have a chance of overcoming the many challenges that bedevil our democracy. And until we understand that each of these issues is part of one overarching challenge, the bright communications universe that should be our future will end as just another black hole of policy failure.