FCC’s AT&T Concession Just Smoke and Mirrors?

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The Center for Digital Democracy is decrying how excitement caused by Net Neutrality language being worked into the Federal Communications Commission’s approval of the AT&T/Bell South merger overshadowed another decision by the FCC showing favoritism to the telecommunications industry over local governments and communities.

A column by Jennifer Harris and Jeff Chester posted at the CDD site called the FCC’s "Rules to Ensure Reasonable Franchising Process for New Video Market Entrants" a weakening of community oversight of video and broadband providers.

It does this, chiefly, by limiting the authority of local governments to determine how telecom giants enter the local market while diminishing local government negotiating power.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin argued that the policy prevents local governments from making "unreasonable requests" in exchange for allowing phone companies to enter the local TV markets. Detractors, however, are calling out that logic using the same argument often used against Net Neutrality in the same organization: there’s no evidence that local governments are demonstrating a failure to negotiate in good faith.

Harris and Chester argue that the hardest hit will be public, educational and government (PEG) access stations, which rely heavily on franchise fees to fund their local media operations. Under the new rules, local governments will not be able to negotiate above a 5 percent cap on franchise fees. Without adequate funding, local media could lose its place in the new media revolution.

Also unsettling is the taking away of authority to decide where phone companies can build out their networks. The new language allows them to "cherry pick" the communities in which to deliver broadband video access.

The authors write:

If value isn’t placed on building out the public interest portions of the key digital infrastructure that connects most American cities, then communities across the country will suffer. Powerful corporate media and telecommunications companies will be making decisions about a city’s digital future–not local citizens or their elected representatives. For communities either economically challenged or geographically isolated, the loss of meaningful community oversight over vital broadband connections threatens their future.

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