Will the Broadband Plan Broadside Niche Media?

After the Federal Communications Commission unveiled its national plan for the future of broadband Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers began hailing it as a success that will shape the future of everything from energy use to the health industry to education. But can these new guidelines only succeed at the cost of the diverse and participatory models of information access many of us hoped the FCC's guidelines would make more common?

Already the accolades are flowing in: Senator John Kerry called the plan "a roadmap to an America with the most robust, accessible broadband infrastructure in the world and the jobs that come with it, and we should settle for nothing less." Massachusetts Representative Edward J. Markey said, "the commission has given us a roadmap to a broadband future in which we consume less energy, improve the quality of health care through the use of technologies such as electronic medical records and ensure that every American has access to the tools they need to succeed." How, then, are we going to achieve these laudable aspirations?

In the days leading up to the release of the report, the ways the plan would suggest freeing up parts of the broadband spectrum had major broadband providers and broadcasters worried: they mainly feared the plan would mandate broadcasters relinquish certain spectrum ranges to be put to other uses. But the plan released on Tuesday ultimately had them breathing a collective sigh of relief. For now, so-called "spectrum-reclamation" will proceed on a voluntary basis, so that willing companies can give up parts of their broadcast spectrum to be used for wireless broadband.

As I wrote earlier this week, the FCC shying away from a significant restructuring of the way Americans receive broadband service renders the plan—despite its many other positive aspects—less than satisfactory. But as Scott Sanders and James Owens convincingly argue in this Editor & Publisher Op-Ed, even a comprehensive effort to achieve universal broadband access and net neutrality does not in and of itself translate into a social justice success. Sure, it would be a huge step, but at the end of the day a "democratic media system" would be just one tool to be used to achieve larger ends. But the crucial question, and one that Sanders and Owens rightfully ask, is "who should produce that system? Open access to a media system controlled by the status quo will not provide the necessary means for disadvantaged communities and social justice movements to change power relations."

Unfortunately, not only does the FCC's plan not lay the groundwork for a more equitable and representative media system, it could in fact consolidate the ownership of that system in even fewer hands. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn expressed her reservations about the national broadband plan in general and the voluntary spectrum reclamation in particular, saying that "the plan does not study the impact that a spectrum sell-off would have on women and minority-owned broadcast television stations. It is certainly possible, if not likely, that the stations most amenable to accept the buyout would be those few owners."

A rather surprisingly high 78 percent of Americans get at least some of their news from local TV stations, so homogenizing the ownership of those stations—no matter how rapidly the media landscape may seem to be changing to the casual observer—would affect the way more than three quarters of the country find out about the world. Therefore, we should take Clyburn seriously when she warns that "we may be doing the country a disservice if our actions left Americans relying on over-the-air television with only the major networks at the expense of smaller stations serving niche audiences who rely on them for their news and information."

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, user Methoxyroxy.

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