Who Decides what you can watch on your Television?

Date: 17 Jun 2008 | posted in: information, MuniNetworks | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Broadcast spectrum is quite limited, allowing only a few channels to send signals over the air to antennas. The Federal Communications Commission decides who gets licenses to use the airwaves. Cable and satellite dishes offer more channel capacity, but the owner must still choose which channels to offer. They pick what they think their customers want to watch.

But what if there were an effectively unlimited number of channels? Welcome to the world of fiber. Fiber-optic networks have sufficient capacity to offer many tens of thousands of channels. Communities across the United States are building these networks to make sure they remain relevant in the digital economy. So, when a community builds a fiber-optic network, who decides what content is offered?

Burlington Telecom is currently trying to answer that question.

Burlington Telecom (BT) is the city department that is building and managing the publicly owned fiber optic network in Vermont’s largest city. Creating channel line-ups is never easy. Each channel has its own terms for being distributed on a network. High-demand channels like ESPN charge a set amount per network subscriber. Other channels charge nothing, trying to maximize potential viewership.

Having nearly unlimited channel capacity, BT has tended to offer any channel that does not charge for carriage. As such, it carried Al Jazeera English – an international news station based in the Middle East and sister station to the more controversial Al Jazeera. Following a leadership change at BT, the new manager decided to drop it.

Some in the community were outraged, calling on BT to continue offering it or, at the very least, allowing the community to weigh in on the merits of carriage. The mayor intervened and insisted on some community discussions before any final decision. See the links below that lead to some of the discussions that have resulted from the situation.

Theonly reason Burlington can have this process is because the community controls its network. No private cable companies in the U.S. offer Al Jazeera English – in fact, few offer any international news outlets such as BBC World or even CNN International. While some want to use any means necessary to banish controversial channels, we believe communities should decide what channels are available rather than letting a private cable company make those decisions.

Wefurther believe that communities should encourage as many different voices as possible.  As some have noted in response to the drive to remove Al Jazeera English, others could start a campaign to remove other channels or pay-per-view adult programming because some find it offensive.  Removing any voice from a fiber network is unnecessary. These networks offer ample bandwidth for all voices and no one has to watch something they would prefer to ignore.

Communitiesshould develop policies that encourage as many perspectives as possible on the network.  In Burlington, the community responded strongly to the unilateral decision by BT’s manager to drop the station.  The two citizen boards overseeing BT were not consulted; the decision to exclude a voice from the network must be subject to greater scrutiny.

Considera continuum when deciding who makes these decisions over what content to exclude.  At the more restrictive end, a single person or private company decides what channels are available.  At the other end, all content would be allowed – with provisions for slander, libel, and content not appropriate for children. 

The compromise position may involve a simple majority decision, perhaps a 51% vote from a citizen board overseeing the network.  Or, a supermajority of 67%.  However, these options may not offer sufficient minority protection from the tyranny of the majority. 

TheUnited States was founded on the premise of free speech though we have continuous debates over what that means.  When it comes to an information network, the owner decides what voices can be heard.  In a democracy, such decisions are of paramount importance.  But until the community owns the network, it cannot even take part in that conversation.

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Christopher Mitchell

Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Netwroks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He runs MuniNetworks.org as part of ILSR's effort to ensure broadband networks are directly accountable to the communities that depend upon them.