Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Broadband for the People

Last week I attended the Alliance for Community Media (ACM) annual conference in Portland, Oregon. These are the folks who run PEG TV channels or Public, Education and Government channels. A lot of people refer to this as public access TV which covers only a small part of it. Probably the popular parody of public access TV is the old Saturday Night Live skit "Wayne's World." There are two things that should be noted about this group. First, long before YouTube and the internet these folks were giving average citizens access to the airways. They provided an inexpensive platform where people, not governments, not corporations and not special interest groups, could express themselves. The second thing is these people are passionate about community television.

The price for freedom of speech is you let everyone have a voice. Then you get shows on public access that inspired "Wayne's World" and you get silly cats on YouTube. This I believe is an acceptable price. The PEG channels have not only given average people a platform but they have made education and their local governments more accessible to more people. From my conversations at the conference it seems that these resources are better utilized in smaller towns and tight knit communities and have less of an impact in suburbia and large cities. There are exceptions of course, especially in cities where the neighborhoods have access to the PEG channels.

While attending the conference I was thinking about the future of television and the PEG channels. PEG channels are under assault across the country by the large cable franchises who give up channel space and a small percentage of their profits to support community television. The Comcast's of the world would just as soon see PEG channels disappear. In addition many have been predicting the demise of broadcast and cable television and its replacement by the internet. The attraction of community television is the community and the connection between neighbors. On-line communities are not the same. How does the Founder's Day Parade streamed on YouTube build community or the City Council Meeting podcasts encourage citizen involvement?

I am not sure what is going to happen but I did make it to one panel discussion that got me very excited. Sean McLaughlin, the Executive Director of Access Humboldt chaired a panel discussion with Christopher Mitchell, the Director of Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance and the New Rules Project, and John Bloch, Board President for ORCA Media in Montpelier, Vermont. Turns out a lot of people have been thinking about and doing something about this for a while now. According to Mitchell 60 communities have already built full fiber-to-the-home networks and many more are working on it. Now I live in Seattle, according to some, one of the most wired cities in the US. I get Comcast's highest internet connection that approaches 3MBps for download speeds and .1MBps for upload speeds. Burlington Telecom, the community run broadband internet services in Burlington, Vermont, provides 8MBps upload and download speeds and bundles that with cable and unlimited US phone service for less than Comcast charges me for internet and cable service.

As a community they are solving the "last mile" problem and providing the gold standard of broadband connectivity, fiber to the home, for less than a private company. In fact private companies don't even want to touch it. Not only do they have broadband, the fiber provides cable television AND telephone service. The comparison of service and costs between private companies and public utilities is pretty striking. Lafayette, Louisiana's public utility's network offers 10Mbps symmetrical connections for less than $30 a month. In Burlington you can get your own television channel for $65 a month. They have plenty of room because they have fiber to the home. The future is here and it's in small towns across America. Of course this is only true in area where it's not illegal. Apparently some states have laws against the public competing against the telecoms. Even Seattle has a group working on it: the Seattle Digital Justice Campaign. Of course Mitchell from Minneapolis had to tell me about it. I'm not too optimistic for Seattle but I'm excited about Burlington, VT, Lafayette, LA, Ashland, OR and the Loma Linda's of the nation.

You can find out more about municipal and community broadband networks at Muninetworks.org and for more information about broadband policy go to Baller.com.

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