APTS presents highway bill, subcommittees want revisions

Originally published in Current, Feb. 14, 1994

After public TV gave Congress its legislative proposal for the information superhighway this month, two key subcommittees have asked the authors to do some more work on drafts, according to David Brugger, president of America's Public Television Stations.

Congressional action may come quickly; both houses want to wrap up telecom legislation by mid-March, Brugger said.

The communications subcommittees of the House and Senate have both asked APTS for more information, though this doesn't mean they will put APTS-inspired provisions into their bills, he added.

Henry P. Becton Jr., president of WGBH in Boston, put forth the APTS proposal Feb. 3 in one of a series of hearings held by Rep. Edward Markey's House telecom subcommittee as it considers how to shape and regulate the National Information Infrastructure (NII).

Congress should make a "public right-of-way" provision part of its plans for the NII from the start rather than add it on later, Becton urged.

In a late switch before the hearing, the subcommittee called Becton to speak for public broadcasting rather than the previously expected witness, new PBS President Erwin Duggan.

As the only representative of nonprofit media organizations on Markey's panel that day, Becton presented what he called an "ecumenical" proposal from APTS that would require companies participating in the NII to provide about 20 percent of their capacity for noncommercial and educational use, including public broadcasting.

A Senate bill sponsored by Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) takes the different approach of offering preferential rates instead of free capacity for public-service users.

Becton called the APTS proposal "the most important piece of public education/public culture legislation since Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act 27 years ago."

"A very generous bike lane"

In separate testimony, a consumer spokesman supported a similar objective, using his own metaphor.

Mark N. Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, said the information superhighway will need "a very generous bike lane" for noncommercial uses, running alongside the commercial lanes.

Cooper contrasted Vice President Gore's public-interest vision of the NII and the home-shopping, home-moviegoing and home-gameplaying expectations of big telecom companies. "When business people talk about the highway," Cooper said, "it sounds like an arcade."

"The reality is that without aggressive public policy, money will buy entertainment, not the information-rich classrooms or the electronic town hall," Cooper said in his written statement. "Providing socially useful applications requires direct public-policy intervention." Corporate philanthropy alone will not be able to do it, he said.

(Cooper's remarks were echoed a few days later when consumer advocate Ralph Nader testified on his concerns about Markey's bill, H.R. 3636. Nader said he supports the APTS proposal in principle.)

After Becton, Cooper and industry spokesmen testified, Markey asked U.S. Telephone Association President Gary McBee how the phone companies would react to taking on the obligation of supporting "public lanes."

"We would support it, depending on how it would be done," McBee said. The Bell Atlantic/TCI plan to wire all public schools in their service areas also is worthy of further consideration, he added.

He and other industry spokesmen were most concerned that the costs of subsidizing any public-interest aspects of the NII be spread to all companies participating in the superhighway.

Subsidies inherent in Markey plan

Becton testified during a specialized hearing about how the old notion of "universal service" will be translated to the new multimedia wire.

To early leaders of Ma Bell as well as its regulators, "universal service"--providing access to the telephone system at affordable rates--was a hallowed goal as well as source of highly desirable economies of scale.

When Congress, with cheerleading from the White House, lets the phone and cable companies compete across the board, as now seems likely, the Markey subcommittee's bill would establish a Federal-State Joint Board that would define what new services telecom carriers would provide under the universal-service obligation and figure how to spread the costs to all telecom companies. So, from the start, the leading policymakers for the information superhighway expect that it will rely on cross-subsidies to spread out the costs and make it more widely accessible.

This subsidy arrangement would provide "access" for users of the highway, including individuals and schools. Becton urged the subcommittee to also think about arranging subsidies for "the supplier side of access"--the noncommercial information providers to the schools, libraries and hospitals.

"It's important that some [information providers] not have to answer to the commercial demands of the marketplace, and be protected, like public education," Becton told the subcommittee.

"Paying for capacity to distribute these services on land-based networks is not an option," since resources already are stretched thin, Becton's statement said.

Over-the-air broadcasting will remain pubcasters' most important delivery channel for years, Becton predicted. But they'll have to get onto the NII anyway.

"As broadband, interactive networks come on line, public broadcasters face the danger that the basis of our support--Americans who can afford to pay for enhanced telecommunications services--will migrate to those networks.

Quid pro quo

In his written statement, Becton pictured the free transmission capacity as an in-kind benefit that telecom carriers would pay back to society in exchange for the public rights-of-way, easements, under-street conduits and airwaves through which they will run the information highways.

"There can be no question as a matter of equity and law that those who exploit these public rights-of-way can and should be required to confer appropriate benefits on the public in return," he said.

Information-providing institutions eligible to use free capacity on the NII under the APTS proposal would include government agencies, nonprofits and "projects that receive public financial support for providing educational and cultural services to the public," public libraries, stations and other entities receiving CPB support and "accredited educational institutions that are open to the public generally." This last category brings in private schools, which were excluded in a January draft of the APTS proposal.

As a target, APTS suggested dedicating 20 percent of NII capacity for public uses, and observed that the government reserved 30 percent of TV channels for noncommercial TV--"a benchmark which makes our 20 percent proposal for a much broader range of users modest by comparison." Under the public right-of-way proposal, the FCC would have flexibility to reserve specific amounts of capacity, with the advice of a Public Telecommunications Advisory Council, including the secretary of education, the CPB president and other four officials.



To Current's home page

Earlier news: APTS will suggest 20 percent as an "appropriate" set-aside.

Later news: Subcommittees respond with proposal for preferential rates, not free access.


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