ONCE UPON A TIME, very few homes had cable TV, and the Federal Communications Commission thought it might be a good idea to give ordinary Americans the chance to own a local broadcast TV station, cheap and easy. So the FCC adopted rules to make this dream come true. Gee, just imagine having your own TV station. It would make life really great in your community.
This actually happened in September 1980. Two months later voters chose a new president, one who was familiar with television. His appointees took a dim view of this local, “low power” TV experiment and its potential to compete with big commercial TV broadcasters. Because it’s hard to undo popular federal regulations, Ronald Reagan’s appointees to the FCC dragged their feet, hoping enthusiasm for low power TV would wither and die.
There was a low power station in Germantown a few years ago. Two other stations broadcast today on the west side of the Hudson River. We’ve used WYBN, TV-14, which transmits from Windham in Greene County, and they’ve advertised with us, because their signal is carried on some local cable TV systems. Mostly, though, the vision that led to low power TV and anticipated it would give underserved rural and urban communities a voice on television fizzled.
Soon we’ll all be watching TV on the internet with our phones and pads. So what’s it matter?
The answer depends on how much money you have. The cost of internet service and the speed of that service depend on many factors, some of them determined by the FCC. And while media attention is understandably focused on Trump administration cabinet members, people in Columbia County might also want to keep an eye on the administration’s new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai. The New York Times interviewed him this week and found that he’s already busy dismantling the FCC policy known as “net neutrality” and a companion determination that defines internet connection as a utility.
Net neutrality means that an internet service provider can’t offer some of its customers better quality service that it doesn’t make available to others. Treating the internet as a utility means it can be regulated and, boy, does this industry need regulators.
Our rural county and neighboring Greene County have the worst internet service in the state. So it was welcome news when New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced last week that his office is suing Charter Communications for breaking its promise to provide broadband (fast) internet services to Chatham and other Columbia County communities. Broadband, which is needed by businesses and benefits consumers in many ways, was a condition for state approval for Charter’s deal to buy Time Warner Cable.
Large communications providers like Charter focus on reaching the greatest number of customers possible, and there aren’t enough of us here to entice the big players to give us good service voluntarily. That’s where regulation comes in, because regulators can leverage access to larger markets in order to improve service in sparsely populated communities. Theoretically.
Last Summer Governor Cuomo came to Hudson to pledge that state government would do its part by providing $500 million for broadband internet service in rural areas statewide, starting with $2.5 million in Columbia County. Additional funding from the federal government for the state effort was
announced last week. The Columbia Economic Development Corporation and the group Connect Columbia are now engaged in developing plans for the best ways to deliver this service to the places that need it most.
With all this activity and funds sufficient to make a dent in our digital deficit, it’s hard to believe that the FCC might pull the rug out from under this non-partisan initiative. Do Chairman Pai and President Trump think Charter or any other major provider will spare Columbia County from unequal pricing if the commission won’t enforce net neutrality?
What leverage will we have to hold internet providers accountable if the providers are not held accountable by the Public Service Commission?
The constituents of Congressman John Faso (R-19th) have many messages they want him to convey to his GOP colleagues in the House, as well as to the president and administration. We can now add these to the list: Retain net neutrality and regulate internet providers like other firms that offer essential services to the public. The president appreciates the importance of access to the internet and so do we.