Though the Clinton Administration has been friendly
to public broadcasting, it hasn't
given it any specific role in the infostructure
and some pubcasters acknowledge privately
that they're standing on the shoulder of the highway
with their thumbs out.

APTS to seek 'public right of way' specifics in infohighway bill

Gore challenges private sector to wire schools and libraries; Administration names NPR's Del Lewis to federal advisory panel

Originally published in Current, Jan. 17, 1994

By Steve Behrens

Like scores of other Washington lobbyists, public TV's advocates are hurrying to hitch a ride with the Clinton Administration as it rushes to remake the communication industry before starting in on the medical world in March.

Picking up a phrase from Vice President Al Gore, America's Public Television Stations (APTS) will ask the Administration to more clearly define ''the public right-of-way'' and help noncommercial users get onto the information superhighway.

APTS was aiming to make its case to the White House this week in hopes of influencing the bill that the Administration aimed to take to Congress by the end of the month.

Though the Administration has been friendly to public broadcasting, it hasn't given it any specific role in the national information infrastructure (NII), and some pubcasters acknowledge privately that they're standing on the shoulder of the highway with their thumbs out.

The most encouraging news was that the Administration named new NPR President Delano Lewis as cochairman of its new Advisory Council on the NII, which convenes Feb. 4. And the Administration has agreed to meet with noncommercial media groups later in February as a followup to the private-sector ''summit'' with Vice President Gore on Jan. 11, according to Jeff Chester, cofounder of the Telecommunications Policy Roundtable, an alliance of 70 nonprofit groups including APTS.

Aspects of the public interest were the substance of Gore's recent speeches about the NII. In his Dec. 21 address laying out key principles of the Administration's NII policy, he even started out with an anecdote from the last hours of the Titanic about the shortcomings of the commercial marketplace in serving public-interest objectives. The marketplace didn't care about keeping shipboard telegraph operators on duty to hear late-night S.O.S. calls, according to Gore's story.

He said later: ''We cannot relax restrictions from legislation and judicial decisions, without strong commitments and safeguards that there will be a 'public right-of-way' on the information highway. We must protect the interests of the public sector.''

Then, in the speech Jan. 11 at the communications-industry summit in Los Angeles, Gore inserted a mention of pubcasting, though without saying much about it: ''We must also explore the future of noncommercial broadcasting; there must be public access to the information superhighway.''

The vice president made news by proposing sweeping statutory changes that would free cable and telephone companies to compete head-to-head under a new regulatory scheme, but he also spoke up for the schools, which he said were ''the most impoverished institutions in society'' in terms of telecommunications services.

''I challenge you, the people in this room, to connect all of our classrooms, all of our libraries and all of our hospitals and clinics by the year 2000,'' Gore said.

He noted that some companies are already promising to do so--and at no cost. Bell Atlantic and the cable colossus it wants to buy, TCI, said the day before that they'll give a free ''Basic Education Connection,'' including free cable service and Internet connections (but not including inside wiring), to the 26,000 elementary and secondary schools in their service areas. They'll offer the connections after their merger, when they upgrade service in the vicinity of the schools. The combined company would wire up about a quarter of the nation's schools.

Testimony in New Mexico

Jon Cooper, g.m. of KNME-TV in Albuquerque, previewed the APTS position when he testified Dec. 16 in a public hearing held there by the Administration's lead agency for the NII, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Cooper said APTS proposes ''a toll-free place on the information highway for public television programming and services and for comparable video, voice and data services provided by other government-supported nonprofit institutions like public schools and libraries.''

''Services originated by these institutions will be entitled to full access to the highway and the equipment needed to navigate it.''

Cooper cited specific needs of New Mexico residents--rural and Native American schools that would benefit from distance learning.

''Public television can be a major link in the national telecommunications infrastructure for education, but not without continued government/private partnership,'' Cooper predicted. ''... Nonprofit public interest groups and their audiences will not have affordable access to a base level of educational services without government intervention.''

Cooper urged NTIA to ''expand the concept of universal service to include the concept of 'universal access,' assuring that all Americans have access to a base level of information that is essential to an educated and informed public.'' This would include audio, video, data, text and graphics. ''Such universal service is paramount to assuring democracy and increasing competitiveness.''

Getting specifics into law

The APTS proposal ''may be the best horse we have'' for nonprofit communicators in general for carrying their objectives to the White House and Congress and getting specific language into law rather than leaving it for later decision at the FCC, said Chester.

APTS will propose specifics to ''codify'' a place for nonprofits in the NII, according to General Counsel Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis. The proposal will define a class of schools and other entities (including PTV stations) that would be eligible for favored treatment, and a ''benchmark'' percentage of capacity to be made available to them, she said.

Other nonprofits meeting with Administration officials Nov. 12 suggested a benchmark of 20 percent, according to Chester.

The set-aside would apply only to ''multichoice, contemporaneous'' services to the public, and not person-to-person services such as telephone connections, Mohrman-Gillis said.

She doesn't expect the details to be adopted exactly as APTS proposed them, but wants to get the Administration to focus on specifics. ''If I were a betting person,'' she admits, ''I would bet that our proposal would be changed.''

Petitioning for access

Beyond the NII arena, meanwhile, APTS is seeking to establish or maintain set-asides analogous to the FCC's reservation of channels for educational TV, four decades ago.

The association has asked the commission to reconsider its petition for free or reduced-cost access to phone companies' video-dialtone services, though the video-dialtone rules may be quickly superceded by new NII regulations.

And APTS is defending its first win in the access struggle: a minor provision tacked onto the 1992 Cable Act that required direct broadcast satellite (DBS) operators to reserve 4 to 7 percent of their capacity for ''noncommercial programming of an educational nature,'' and to provide that capacity at discount rates.

The set-aside--declared unconstitutional last September by a U.S. District Court judge (Current, Oct. 4)--now has the Justice Department defending it as Justice lawyers appeal several of the judge's decisions on the cable bill to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. And the appeals court this month permitted APTS to intervene in the case, according to Mohrman-Gillis.

In addition, APTS is arguing to protect the discount-rate provision for DBS. In a separate FCC proceeding about rules for future auctions of spectrum, APTS urged the commission in November to exempt the noncommercial set-aside from auctions.

If the noncommercial capacity were part of the auction, DBS operators would be able to include the cost of that capacity in their ''direct costs'' and charge higher rates to noncommercial users.

The DBS set-aside provision holds down the rates for a noncommercial channel to no more than 50 percent of the ''direct costs of make such channel available.''

Notably, the legal attacks on the DBS set-aside did not come from the DBS industry, but from cable companies opposing the entire Cable Act.



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Later news: Later news: APTS seeks 20 percent reservation on NII for nonprofits.


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