Remember Community Access As Broadband Technology Rises

The recently betrothed AOL and Time Warner should be hearing wedding bells any day now, their union blessed by Washington regulators seemingly enthralled by the fast play of market forces.

Look at the papers the beloveds filed recently with the FCC as part of the proposed merger, the largest in U.S. corporate history. See all the appendixes -- bullish reports on the merged company's prospects from Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Paine Webber. The Merrill Lynch analysts predict that the final impact of the merger would be profound, suggesting that AOL-TW would likely become the "operating system for everyday life." Everywhere, there's an enthusiastic embrace of an interactive future filled with "sticky" content, instant messaging, buddy lists and "dynamic" brand-distribution platforms. But is that all we should expect of the broadband revolution? An enhanced online marketplace?

If we want more -- and we should, including more community access, more room for public, not just commercial, uses -- we need to start our public debate now, because it's getting late.

Still in its infancy, broadband delivery is a communications crossroads not unlike the advent of telephony, radio, television, cable and the Internet. The impact of this latest communications revolution eventually will touch all aspects of our lives.

Whether all that is ultimately good or bad, however, remains to be determined. The opportunity is before us, now that bandwidth constraints have been lifted and the new digital infrastructure is about to be put in place, to build a richer set of services that promote citizenship and democracy, education and culture. All of these are aspects of community -- both virtual and real -- that are beyond the power of the increasingly commercialized marketplace to deliver on its own.

But they are within our grasp, if we make the right decisions now about how the broadband future should unfold.

As Massachusetts Institute of Technology Dean of Architecture William J. Mitchell observes in his book City of Bits, "The most crucial task before us is not one of putting in place the digital plumbing of broadband communications links and associated electronic appliances (which we will certainly get anyway), nor even of producing electronically deliverable 'content,' but rather one of imagining and creating digitally mediated environments for the kinds of lives that we will want to lead and the sorts of communications that we will want to have."

The process that Mitchell describes, one of establishing a vision for the broadband future, requires that we develop an agenda now for building an online environment that serves the public interest as effectively as it meets the expectations of Wall Street. Waiting until after the e-commerce marketplace matures before adopting public-service requirements will yield only a repeat of the sad story of broadcast television, where advocates of free time for political discourse, for example, are reduced to begging stations for a modest five minutes of airtime for debates.

As a first step in developing a new public-interest agenda, we need look no further than such communities as Portland, Ore., and Montgomery County, Md., where local officials have negotiated franchise agreements with broadband network providers that contain important public-interest concessions. These include setting aside portions of the bandwidth for noncommercial use, securing new support for community applications, and installing high-speed connections for civic organizations.

At the national level, just as we have carved out space for noncommercial programming on radio and television (and, more recently, on direct broadcast satellite systems), so should we set a portion of the broadband environment aside for similar noncommercial fare (and, more important, for new interactive public-interest services). As our experience with public broadcasting has shown, however, bandwidth set-asides alone will not be enough to achieve broadband's full programming potential. We have to find ways to sustain the kinds of civic, educational and cultural services that will otherwise be lacking if broadband is merely commercialized.

Companies such as AOL-TW, which control both conduit and content, also need to be held to a higher public standard. They will wield tremendous power in the marketplace of ideas, which is why an open-access policy to ensure that the Internet remains democratic and diverse is also needed. It is time for a national dialogue with policymakers, these new media leaders, and the public to ensure that the new broadband Internet serves as effectively as it sells.

Jeffrey Chester (jeff@cme.org) is executive director of the Center for Media Education in Washington.

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