Originally published in Current, June 20, 1994
By Steve Behrens
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) introduced legislation last week that would not only reserve up to 20 percent of the information superhighway for free use by nonprofits and government, but also authorize funding for their equipment.
Henry Cauthen, president of South Carolina ETV, will be among proponents testifying for the proposal during hearings June 22 in the Senate communications subcommittee that Inouye chairs.
''Passage of this legislation will ensure that the new information superhighway will be a vehicle for education and civic discourse--not only a commercial kiosk for entertainment, home shopping and video games,'' said David Brugger, president of America's Public Television Stations (APTS).
APTS has been working for such a bill, which brings the concept of reserved educational frequencies to the 1990s and applies it to all future telecom technologies, says General Counsel Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis. The bill is based on a new version of the Public Right of Way proposal drafted by APTS and colleagues from the Media Access Project and People for the American Way Action Fund.
The latest version of the proposal went to Inouye with dozens of signatories, including the National Education Association, La Raza, Consumer Federation of America and the U.S. Catholic Conference.
The National Public Telecommunications Infrastructure Act (S. 2195), departs from the approach of the Senate's broader infohighway bill, which contains only a brief paragraph awarding ''preferential rates'' to nonprofits and governments.
The new bill would direct the FCC to write rules requiring operators of ''telecommunications networks''--broadcast stations are exempted--to reserve capacity for free use by state, local and tribal governments, ''accredited educational institutions open to enrollment by the public,'' public telecommnications entities, libraries and nonprofits that were created to provide ''nondiscriminatory public access to noncommercial, educational, informational, cultural, civic or charitable services.''
The bill says 20 percent would be an ''appropriate'' portion of capacity to be reserved, but the FCC would have leeway to require less.
The bill claims the reserved capacity as public property--network owners would neither control the capacity nor have liability for it--and justifies this by noting that telecom companies use government-owned rights-of-way and/or spectrum.
If the companies object to new obligations, says the Media Access Project's Gigi Sohn, proponents expect to argue that pending legislation is giving the companies new authority in exchange: permission for cable to enter the phone business and vice versa.
APTS and nonprofit cohorts added a ''sunset'' provision to the bill: when and if a telecom network eliminates ''economic and technological barriers'' that now impede access by eligible nonprofits and agencies, the FCC can reduce or eliminate the reservation.
''Legislators are nervous about setting aside anything in perpetuity,'' explains Sohn. ''One of the things we have run up against is the notion that the infrastructure will have infinite capacity.'' If it does, the reservation won't be needed and will go away, she says; if it doesn't, the law will be there.
The bill authorizes the FCC to allocate an unspecified amount of money to a new Public Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund to give nonprofit and government users economic support in using the reserved capacity. The money would come from a ''universal service fund'' supported by fees from telecom companies, and other sources.
Speaking directly to possible court challenges in the future, the bill repeatedly cites Congress's ''compelling interest'' in improving improving democratic self-governance and insuring all citizens' access to diverse educational and other services, including the voices ''most likely to be excluded'' by marketplace forces. Among those voices would be ''small town and rural residents, low-income people, minorities, individuals with disabilities, the elderly and noncommercial organizations such as schools, libraries, public broadcasters and nonprofit community and civic organizations.''