The Times Sees No Evil

The biggest news from the digital frontier may be the advent of community internet – low-cost, high-speed broadband services provided by municipal governments and community groups via local networks.

Hundreds of cities and towns – from Philadelphia and San Francisco to Granbury, Texas, and Scottsburg, Ind. – recognize broadband internet access as a public necessity, no different from water, gas or electricity. Especially in rural and underserved urban areas, community internet promises to narrow the digital divide.

Telecom and cable companies are pushing laws across the country that would restrict local competition and cut off consumer choice. This newsworthy battle finally graced the front-page of the The New York Times on Feb. 17, with a story pegged to Philadelphia's ambitious plans to turn the city into "one gigantic wireless hot spot."

The real problem with James Dao's piece wasn't its tardiness – other papers covered similar ground months ago – but the way the Times failed to question the true motivations of its sources.

The first quote in the story goes to Adam Thierer, identified as "director of telecommunications studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and the author of a soon-to-be-released study criticizing the Philadelphia plan." He tells the Times: "The last thing I'd want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility."

Dao fails to note that the Cato Institute is funded by Verizon, SBC Communications, Time Warner, Comcast and Freedom Communications – all companies seeking to put a stake through the heart of homegrown broadband systems. Thierer is little more than an industry sock puppet.

Dao then goes on to interview David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, who asks: "Is it fair that the industry pay tax dollars to the city that are then used to launch a network that would compete with our own?"

Fair enough. But again, Dao fails to alert readers to his source's conflicts of interest that might impugn his integrity. In a previous incarnation, Cohen served as chief of staff to then Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell. Rendell has since moved into the governor's mansion, while Cohen jumped to the private sector.

But Cohen still has Rendell's ear, which might explain why the governor ignored widespread public opposition and signed a bill into law last December that prevents other Pennsylvania communities from offering competitive broadband services. Though the Philadelphia plan secured a last-minute reprieve, the rest of the state got shafted.

And Comcast – so concerned about the spending of its tax dollars – is more than happy to take public handouts. To finance the Comcast Center, which will be Philadelphia's tallest skyscraper when it's completed in 2007, Rendell put together a state aid package worth $42.75 million. The state Department of Community and Economic Development kicked in another $12.75 million in grants and tax credits. Dao doesn't mention it.

Later Dao does give Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe the chance to remind readers that "government doesn't do service well." Tell that to the 40 percent of Philadelphians without access to broadband service.

James Dao wrote in an e-mail that he was aware of Cato's funding and David Cohen's background. "But unlike bloggers who have unlimited space, I had to make editorial choices," he writes. "This story was being relentless [sic] cut, and my choice was between retaining details about Philadelphia's program and adding asides about Cato or David Cohen's background. I went with the program details."

Dao is free to prioritize those aspects of the story he finds most important. But it's hard to understand why he would choose to downplay this unseemly tale of collusion between corporations, state government and coin-operated think tanks like Cato and the dubious New Millennium Research Council, which are at the center of a well-funded campaign to paint municipal broadband as an affront to American innovation and free enterprise.

In fact, the opposite is true. Community internet creates free-market competition, allows consumer choice, and encourages entrepreneurs through public-private partnerships. Municipal networks are proving a win-win for local politicians: They're relatively cheap to build and city officials gain points from bringing technology – and resulting economic opportunity – to neighborhoods that are often passed over by commercial providers.

As Dianah Neff, Philadelphia's chief technology officer, asked of Verizon and Comcast in a recent column for ZDNet: "When was the last time they were elected to determine what is best for our communities? If they're really concerned about what is important to all members of the community, why haven't they built this type of network that meets community needs or approached a city to use their assets to build a high-speed, low-cost, ubiquitous network?"

All good questions. Perhaps the Times should have explored them further.

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