Friday, January 12, 2018

Net Neutrality and Cable Broadcasting in the Public Interest

Last month on December 14, 2017 the FCC voted to rescind US Internet access rules termed “Net Neutrality”. Simply stated, Net Neutrality ensured common carrier/equal access to the Internet without regard to infrastructure ownership or incidental third party network traffic. By rescinding net neutrality rules FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai encouraged major network players to invest in new infrastructure without concern for the incidental subsidization of competition carried on their privately owned networks. Network owners can now slow or block competitive traffic on their systems and prioritize their own services or programming. While a controversial move, the ruling removes the on-going inhibitions of key industry players contemplating expansive investment in new Internet/network technologies. Passage of President Trump’s Tax Reform legislation further prompted major industry players AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner to proceed with planned capital investments in their networks. After the tax bill was signed, major cable system providers announced their intentions to invest in new Internet infrastructure. As the affirmation of owner/operator control of the Internet displaces the common carrier philosophy of Barack Obama, Internet capacity should expand at an accelerating rate as new technologies displace aging hardware. With the US government rescinding net neutrality and facilitating capital investment, the Internet’s evolution toward privately owned infrastructure will foment new efficiencies of scale as well as future challenges to the treatment of public interest policy.

Broadcasting in the Public Interest

For the purpose of this discussion we must first consider the current market segmentation of publicly available Internet based communication services (including cell phones), entertainment programming (cable and satellite carriers) along with on-the-air broadcast of TV news and programming.  In the early days of broadcasting the Communications Act of 1934 established rules for the broadcast of radio and TV programming. The FCC assigned radio and TV channels to commercial broadcast operators with the understanding they operate in the public interest. Public interest programming standards ensured family friendly program content, and reinforced established cultural mores (limiting profanity and program content). Network censors monitored commercial broadcasts and “bleeped out” inappropriate content during live programming while recorded programming was subject to censor review and edited as required prior to broadcast. News and information programming was reviewed for accuracy and ethical treatment of subject matter. Today, on-the-air programming is similarly monitored and subject to standards which have evolved over the years. However the emergence of the non-broadcast cable industry has radically changed programming and network news content and requires we rethink the concept of broadcasting in the public interest.

Cable distribution of television programming has evaded broadcast “public interest” regulations as the transmission of content is made on a closed commercially owned system available by encrypted subscription only. Because the programming is not available to the public, the prevailing broadcast rules which set standards for family friendly content may not apply. Hence the popularity and distribution of the racy programs popular on cable networks. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 establishes more current guide lines for programming and media content.

A Possible Solution – Create a Two Tier Public/Private Internet System for the US

That said, we must consider the advantage/necessity of restoring unhindered access to the Internet as per net neutrality rules. Given unhindered access, we must also address concerns and ensure services and programming provide a safe, family friendly environment.  On January 8, 2018 President Trump signed an executive order providing broadband service for rural communities. We should urge President Trump and the FCC to establish standards for two systems; a commercial system owned and operated by private operators such as Comcast and Time Warner as well as a net neutral system sponsored/subsidized by the US government and private/commercial sponsors. Under such an arrangement, paid private cable subscription programming could continue in its current form while a second publicly available net neutral system could provide both public access to the Internet and ensure a trustworthy conduit for family friendly programming operating under the FCC’s "Public Interest” rules. The details of such an arrangement would require a rethink by the FCC and the cable industry and might require new authorizations and funding by congress. It would seem a one size fits all Internet system requires a two tier approach to accommodate a large US based private/public market place.

Best regards,

Thomas D. Jay is a member of SPIE and IEEE

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Acknowledgments and Reference Links

[1] Communications Act of 1934

[2] Telecommunications Act of 1996

[3] President Trump Executive Order January 8, 2018