Broadband for the People: 2

David Houston
In part one, we looked at the offering of broadband as a public utility and the private sector's opposition to such an idea. Today, we'll examine the use of 'push polls' to influence legislators and the dangers of content regulation:

Using 'Push Polls'
Opponents of public broadband services reportedly have conducted "push polls" focused on pornography in one Chicago suburb that got into the online business. (Push poll is a term used for marketers, commonly in political campaigns, who push an agenda by posing as telephone pollsters collecting data.)

"Should tax money be allowed to provide pornographic movies for residents?" Mike Simon, a resident of the Tri-Cities, Ill., area told Mother Jones magazine he was asked during a purported telephone survey.

Representatives for Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications, companies that have fought the hardest to block public broadband services, did not return telephone calls. Those companies have argued that it is unfair to force them to pay taxes to municipalities that turn around and use that money to build a competing entity.

Last year, Verizon persuaded Gov. Edward G. Rendell to sign a law requiring Pennsylvania municipalities to give the main local telephone company 14 months to provide high-speed Internet service to an area before creating a public broadband entity. Philadelphia was exempted from the law.

Lenard said, "Municipalities getting into the telecom business tends to be bad for the taxpayers," and he doubts Philadelphia will be able to successfully build a system for $10 million.

"These systems generally cost more than anticipated because the cities find themselves in head-to-head competition with private providers," he said. "Telecoms do this for a living, and it's an intensely competitive business."

Eric A. Klein, a technology lawyer at Katten Muchin Rosenman in Los Angeles, said already some members of Congress are trying to stop Internet gambling. If municipalities get into the broadband service business, local enforcement wouldn't be far behind.

"You'll have some crusading prosecutors somewhere who'll see this as a great issue," Klein predicted.

Already, a federal prosecutor in Missouri has wrung a $10 million settlement out of the online payment service PayPal over Internet gambling. And a group of sore losers in Louisiana filed what was ultimately an unsuccessful racketeering lawsuit against Visa and Mastercard over Internet gambling.

"There's a lot of uncertainty right now because we have a patchwork of laws," Klein said. "The question will be whether the speech is commercial speech or protected speech."

Framing the argument over whether cities could regulate Internet content on a municipal-owned service, Klein added, "The Philadelphia approach is to be a wholesaler. So they are not going to be actually providing the service themselves. They'll be taking services from different ISPs."

Klein said he also doubts that objections being raised by telephone and cable companies that they will be forced to compete with a public entity would get much traction. He compared it to private prisons that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled can compete with public prisons.

"There clearly is a strong governmental interest here," he said.

Content Regulation?
Robert Foster, director of the global access program at UCLA's Anderson School of Business, agreed that municipalities that provide Internet service would try to regulate some content.

"Pornography offends so many people that they won't be able to ignore it," he said. "Another is offshore gambling."

Politically powerful financial institutions so far have blocked congressional attempts to crack down on Internet gambling and Foster predicted they would do the same for pornography.

But Evangelical Christian groups already pressuring Congress to regulate cable and satellite TV content leave little doubt that they would do the same to any part of an ISP system that became a public entity.

"It's something we haven't given a lot of thought to, but I'm sure we'll be looking at in the future," Kelly Oliver, spokeswoman for the PTC, said.

Supporters of government-provided Internet services say they doubt municipal leaders will find much ground on which to regulate and control Internet content.

"I don't think the regulation will be at a much more significant rate or intensity just because the city happens to provide the last mile," said Mike Apgar, chairman and founder of Speakeasy, a Seattle company that sells fiber-optic broadband connections to municipalities.

"If you're interested in regulating, you have to do it as its core, at the business that is providing the content."