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Bill Moyers: Why U.S. Internet Access is Slow, Costly and Unfair

Americans are getting bilked for second class internet access.

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BILL MOYERS: In North Carolina a couple of years ago lobbyists for Time Warner persuaded the state legislature to make it almost impossible, virtually impossible for municipalities to get their own utility, right?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: That's exactly right. And so now North Carolina, after being beaten up by the incumbents is at the near the bottom of broadband rankings for the United States.

BILL MOYERS: And what's the practical consequence of that?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: All those students in North Carolina, all those businesses that otherwise would be forming, they don't have adequate connections in their towns to allow this to happen. They've got-- they're subject to higher and higher pricing. They're being gouged.

BILL MOYERS: Your book did underscore for me why this is so important to democracy, to the functioning of our political system, to our role as a self-governing free people. Talk about that a moment. Why do you see this so urgently in terms of our practically dysfunctional democracy today?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: We need to be able to speak to each other effectively and effectively to government. We need to empower our citizens to feel dignified and ready to cope in the 21st century. Having a communications system that knits the country together is not just about economic growth. It's about the social fabric of the country. And a country that feels as if it can move together and trust each other is one that is more democratic. As a matter of national policy we have forced other countries to talk about the importance of internet access, foreign policy we're great at saying, "Make sure internet is everywhere." Domestically, for some reason, we haven't done so well. So I see internet access as the heart of a democratic society.

BILL MOYERS: You use that merger of Comcast and NBCUniversal as the window in your book into what this power can do to the aspirations of a democratic internet.

BRIAN WILLIAMS on NBCNightlyNews: Federal regulators today approved the purchase by Comcast of a majority stake in NBCUniversal from General Electric […] This merger will create a $30 billion media company with cable, broadcast, internet, motion picture and theme park components. The deal is expected to close by the end of the month.

BILL MOYERS: You say that the merger between Comcast and NBCUniversal represented a new frightening moment in U.S. regulatory history. How so?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Comcast is not only the nation's largest broadband distributor with tens of millions of customers, it also now owns and controls one of the four media conglomerates in America, NBCUniversal. That means that it has a built-in interest in making sure that it shapes discourse, controls programming all in the service of its own profit-making machine. As both the distributor and a content provider, it's in its interest to make sure that it can always charge more for discourse we would think isn't controlled by anybody. So it's a tremendous risk to the country that we have this one actor who has no interest in the free flow of information controlling so much of high speed internet access.

BILL MOYERS: You say the merger created the largest vertically integrated distributor of information in the country. So what's the practical consequence of Comcast having this control over its content?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Here's the consequence. Comcast with the control over its programming, and also because it works to closely with the very concentrated programming industry, can raise the costs of any rival coming in to provide let's say competitive fiber access. So Google in Kansas City is having real trouble getting access to sports content because Time Warner Cable, the local monopoly player there, controls that sports content. So Google or any other competitive fiber provider has to enter two markets at once. One market to provide the transport, the fiber, and then also the programming market. And making programming more expensive is yet another barrier to entry. And Comcast can carry that out now.

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