Lobbying for 'public lanes' on highway

APTS floats proposal, House hearings begin

Originally published in Current, Jan. 31, 1994

By Steve Behrens

In his first week on the job, new PBS President Ervin Duggan is tentatively scheduled to present the case for "public lanes" on the information superhighway during the fourth in a new series of House hearings.

Duggan and other speakers for the nonprofit media world will have the task of grabbing the spotlight from many others with an interest in the National Information Infrastructure (NII).

The House telecommunications and finance subcommittee chaired by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) is united behind many NII plans but split on the extent of future regulation of the combined cable TV and telephone industries.

America's Public Television Stations (APTS) has taken the lead in arguing for free carriage of nonprofit programming on up to 20 percent of the NII's capacity, asserting that "universal access" to "toll-free lanes on the nation's information highways" will help prevent the creation of an underclass of information "have-nots."

But the Clinton-Gore proposal and allied bills backed by a majority of the House subcommittee are silent on this question, and new FCC Chairman Reed Hundt said last week that the NII should begin to address "universal service" goals by rapidly extending multimedia service to all schools and libraries.

That is also a favored approach by major Bell operating companies, which already have pledged to wire schools at no charge in many states.

The speakers list for the subcommittee's Feb. 3 hearing on "universal service" was not complete at Current deadline, but tentatively included Duggan and Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education and cofounder of a coalition of nonprofit media groups, the Telecommunications Policy Roundtable, according to a subcommittee spokesman. The first hearing took place Jan. 27 and the seventh will be held Feb. 10.

In the first hearing last week, administration spokesman Larry Irving, FCC Chairman Hundt and Assistant Attorney General Anne Bingaman generally backed the Markey subcommittee's approach to NII regulation in its bill, H.R. 3636, which would move toward identical regulation of the telephone and cable industries and would let them into each others' lines of business.

Irving--Markey's former chief aide who now heads the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)--presented a Clinton-Gore white paper that proposes to require telecom providers to make "an equitable and nondiscriminatory" contribution to universal service. The FCC and states would be given "flexibility" in enforcing that obligation.

Hundt said that universal service, a key objective of U.S. policy toward the telephone industry, should be extended to other media on the NII "as other services become as necessary to participation in our economy as telephone service."

Wiring all schools and libraries by the year 2000, as Vice President Gore has proposed, "is a way to fulfill that commitment quickly," Hundt said.

But can we afford to use it?

While policymakers agree that universal service starts in the schools and libraries and eventually would give every home the ability to plug in at an affordable cost, they have no consensus so far about assuring "universal access" or affordability of the actual information services, including TV and interactive computer offerings, which may typically carry per-use or per-hour fees.

A "Public Right of Way" proposal circulated earlier this month by APTS suggested that telecom companies delivering the NII subsidize delivery of services for a new class of eligible nonprofits and government agencies, including public broadcasting stations.

So far, no one is talking about subsidies of the production of information content or programs, or of local nonprofit NII outlets comparable to PTV stations.

The proposed class of nonprofit information providers eligible for free capacity would include public broadcasting institutions, public libraries, public schools, other nonprofits "that receive public funding to provide educational and cultural services to the public," state and local governments, and most private and public colleges--specifically, "private educational institutions that receive direct public support or whose students are eligible for publicly funded loans or grants."

Though the classification would surely be subject to refinement, communications attorney Kenneth Salomon comments that this group would exclude such nonprofits as the research arm of the tobacco industry lobby.

APTS suggests that the FCC could allocate blocks of capacity to CPB and to states for distribution to individual entities. It says 20 percent is an "appropriate" amount of capacity to devote to nonprofit media, but the proposal would leave that specific decisions to the FCC. A Public Telecommunications Advisory Council would make capacity-allocation recommendations to the FCC. Council members would be the president of CPB, the secretary of education, the librarian of Congress, the administrator of NTIA, the director of National Institute of Science and Technology, and a presidential appointee representing state and local governments.

The percentage obligation would apply to system capacity devoted to "multi-choice contemporaneous" services analogous to cable TV, both for the carrier of the system and the proprietors of various information services on it.

However, the bill would not apply to phone calls and similar services or existing cable TV services or new direct satellite broadcast (DBS) systems that have 100 or fewer channels.

Access to cable would still be covered by the existing must-carry laws, and access to DBS would be provided under a 1992 law that sets aside 4 to 7 percent of DBS capacity for noncommercial users. Both the cable and DBS statutes are under legal attack.

Broadcast stations would be exempt, the proposal says, because a third of spectrum allocated to TV already is reserved for public use.

Under the bill, the 20 percent capacity would become "public property," beyond the control of the telecom carrier. In exchange for the capacity, government would give the telecom carriers "special access to public rights-of-way," such as spectrum and public spaces where cables are buried under streets or hung over them.

The bill would assert that Congress has "concurrent" jurisdiction over those rights-of-way along with states and local governments.



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Public TV seeks a role in the infostructure while Gore challenges private sector to wire the schools.

Later news: As subcommittees work on telecom bill, APTS presents its proposal.


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