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David Isenberg: Moyers on The Net at Risk
Jon Lebkowsky, 19 Oct 06

Logo from Isenberg's first Freedom to Connect conferenceGuest review by David Isenberg.

David spent 12 years at AT&T Bell Labs until his 1997 essay,"The Rise of the Stupid Network," was received with acclaim everywhere in the global telecommunications community with one exception -- at AT&T itself! So Isenberg left AT&T in 1998 to found, LLC (an independent telecom analysis firm based in Cos Cob, Connecticut) and to publish The SMART Letter, an open-minded commentary on the communications revolution and its enemies.

I watched The Net@Risk, by Bill Moyers and company, last night. I must admit at the very start that I am biased towards the show's message -- that the miracle that is the Internet is endangered by impending corporate government control, abetted by a captured Congress and a weak FCC. But at the outset, regardless of the show's viewpoint or mine, I observe that it is the only piece of in-depth reporting on telecom policy that I've seen on TV. That says a whole lot by itself!

The show focused on the Internet as a vehicle for Democracy -- the same meme that is the central focus of my last two Freedom to Connect conferences.

The first segment of the Moyers show was devoted to my friend Bruce Kushnick's work that shows how the telcos promised the fiber optic future in the 1990s, got tax breaks and rate relief, and then failed to deliver. Kushnick says we don't need to look further than this to understand why the US is behind the rest of the world.

There was a long segment devoted to the Lafayette Louisiana FTTH effort, showing why the city decided to do its own fiber network -- a) because some people still remember the Rural Electification Act, which is embodied in LUS, the local muni power company, and b) because BellSouth and Cox both said, "We'll get to Lafayette in a decade or two." The segment then detailed how BellSouth and Cox forced a vote, then ignored their overwhelming defeat at the polls, then sued and sued and sued. It depicted remarkable bipartisanship -- I don't know if the show went out of its way to find Republicans that supported the Lafayette FTTH plan, but there sure were a lot of them.

There was an extended sit-down interview between Moyers and Mark Cooper. I am amazed at Mark Cooper's talent for explaining basic concepts powerfully without dumbing them down. He spoke of the bias in the telegraph system -- how around 1900 the telegraph favored AP and discriminated against other news organizations, and extended it to railroads, innkeepers, etc., and then to the Internet to show how Common Carriage was a pillar of Capitalism. (The Supreme Court (1906) found that Western Union was barred from discriminating even in the absence of a statute, because non-discrimination was so deeply embedded in common law.)

There was another big segment on the disappearance of local radio as a result of relaxing ownership rules. It avoided didacticism by zeroing in on the role that a small LPFM station on the Gulf Coast played during and after the Katrina disaster. The fellow who built and ran the station lives on social security. His was one of four stations in the area that stayed on the air (out of 40-some, virtually all owned by out-of-town corporations) and the only radio station that had actual people in the region to tell people where to get food and water and ice. In Katrina, this fellow lost everything except the radio station, and miraculously, the antenna mast.

The show also featured brief clips of last week's FCC hearing in Los Angeles on media ownership. I happened to watch a lot of it on C-SPAN, and it, too, was edge-of-your-seat TV. Speaker after speaker spoke eloquently of the importance of local ownership as a channel for new creative talent, for business, for news, political expression. I watched the body language of the Commissioners. Copps and Adelstein were engaged. Deborah Taylor Tate, on the other hand, seemed to lean back as if to distance herself. McDowell, the new guy, was tabula rasa. Chairman Martin was leaning forward, as if he caught the passion, so it will be interesting to see whether any of what he heard will shape his policy-making. I do not think that Moyers devoted enough footage to this critical hearing, but in fairness, most of this show has been "in the can" for weeks, and he probably had some hard choices about what to cut to include any of it.

If the show had any "opportunities for improvement," they were in the depiction of the incumbent side. I have to say, though, that if I put on my most impartial hat, I can't see a lot of merit in most of the Bellheads' arguments. Mike McCurry was the main face of the opposition, and he's just a paid flack. I would have liked to have seen Ed Whitacre saying, "My pipes," and Ted Stevens saying, "Series of tubes." I would have liked to hear Andrew Odlyzko explaining how discrimination yields economic efficiency. I would have liked to hear some proponents of CALEA and 911-over-VOIP make their case. But then, this show was not for me, it was about taking the message to a larger audience. And I think it did a hell of a job.

If you missed it, the video is online at And there's an exchange between Mike McCurry and Ben Scott of Free Press here that's worth reading: The comments following this exchange show, if anything, that if you give people a voice, virtually all of them who are not employees of the incumbent industry are deeply concerned for the future of the Internet.

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I, too, thought the show was excellent. Not only as someone creating original content/video for broadband, but also as a student of history. Living here in Atlanta, under the shadow of Bellsouth, I am hyper-aware of their huge, uh, "media droppings" all over the SE, and have written about some of their (PR) "leavings" in editorials before, but I never really understood the promises-broken in terms of fiber until last night.

Had I been a clued-in Bellsouth shareholder in the 90's, I'd have gladly given back every dividend cent just to have fiber optic now for my co. Nowadays, I no longer own any BS (AT&T) shares, and will continue to put my money elsewhere, and continue to support net neutrality legislation. If there's any more one person can do, believe me I will do it. Especially after watching last night.

Posted by: Grayson on 19 Oct 06

It was a great show, as were the rest in this miniseries. I had thought it was probably hopeless to get this complex topic into the political mainstream, but Moyers has given us exactly the tool we need. If we're serious, we'll spread this video around as widely as we have the time and money to accomplish.

BTW, kudos are overdue to PBS for making this and other shows available on the Net in their entirety in an excellent cross-platform format. They're leading the way in taking the Net to its next level as our prime information medium.

Posted by: Davey on 19 Oct 06

I, too, thought that the Moyers team did a great job of presenting the problem and why we should be concerned and get motivated to stop the threat.
There is one thing that is bugging me. That is, the word "promise" was used when talking about the agreement we (the Congress) made with the telecommunications companies to build the fiber optic network the 90s. Was there nothing stronger than that? Have we no recourse in making them fulfil the "promise"? That is like allowing companies to make voluntary pollution reductions. It just does not seem to happen w/o both carrots and sticks. They sure got the big carrot and they ate it and got plenty fat.

I would very much like to hear more about this most important aspect of the story. Does anyone have more info, or know where to go to get it?

Posted by: Allison on 20 Oct 06



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