Davis Media Access: Community media, rights are common ground

By From page A4 | April 26, 2012

Last week, I spoke at a state Senate hearing against SB 1611, a bill that would eliminate many consumer rights afforded to our state’s most vulnerable citizens.

A sizeable group of advocates opposed the bill, ranging from consumer rights agencies, labor unions, rural networks, and broadband and media advocates. Our comments emphasized the need for Universal Lifeline service and protections for low-income and rural residents whose access to digital networks is already limited.

In support were lobbyists from every major telecommunications company in the state. They argued that further deregulation of the telecom companies is good for business, and therefore good for the consumer.

If I didn’t know better, I might have been convinced by their testimony. They were extremely well dressed, articulate and spoke with such conviction. They convinced the Senate committee they spoke the truth, and the bill moved on. That’s how the game is played.

The problem is it’s a game played on a grossly uneven playing field.

The Los Angeles Times published an excellent article recently about AT&T’s moneyed sway over California politics (“AT&T Donations Flow to California Legislators,” April 22). Shane Goldmacher and Anthony Yor carefully detail the rise of AT&T in California politics:

“It (AT&T) forges relationships on the putting green, in luxury suites and in Capitol hallways. It gives officials free tickets to Lady Gaga concerts. It takes lawmakers on trips around the globe and all-expenses-paid retreats in wine country. It dispenses millions in political donations and employs an army of lobbyists. It has spent more than $14,000 a day on political advocacy since 2005, when it merged with SBC into its current form.

“A handful of labor unions and trade groups have spent more on a combination of lobbying and direct political giving, but state records show that in the last seven years, no single corporation has spent as much trying to influence lawmakers as AT&T. At the same time, a tide of consumer protections has ebbed and the company has been unshackled from the watchful eye of state regulators.”

As to the contention that deregulating powerful telecom companies is good for the consumer: AT&T was the principal force behind the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006, which enacted statewide video franchising. Phone companies such as AT&T and Verizon were allowed to enter the video market without having to negotiate with cities directly. Cities lost an enormous amount of power to negotiate benefits for their municipality and for the Public, Educational and Government access centers therein.

A report published by The Benton Foundation in April 2011 (“Analysis of Recent PEG Access Center Closures, Funding Cutbacks and Related Threats”) details the impact of that legislation on community media centers similar to Davis Media Access.

The study found that more than 100 centers have closed or endured severe cuts. Hundreds more face similar cutbacks or may be forced to cease operations in the near future, and that this has occurred primarily as a result of state franchising laws. The report concluded “Without question, the Cable Act’s goal of advancing the First Amendment through public participation in PEG Access is now in serious danger.”

Years ago when I started working in community media, I would have said my work was about free speech, not consumer rights. Today the two are inextricably linked, and it’s a pitched battle. If you’d like more information, visit our allies at The Utility Reform Network (http://turn.org ). I’ll continue to track and write about similar legislation.

— Autumn Labbé-Renault is executive director for Davis Media Access, an organization providing access to, and advocacy for, local media. She writes this column monthly.

Autumn Labbe-Renault

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