Tuesday, September 30, 2008

White Spaces for New York

Follow is my Sept. 29 testimony before the New York City Council:

Free Press is grateful for the opportunity to testify before the Council today. We have nearly 500,000 members nationwide. More than 17,000 of them are New Yorkers, living within the five Burroughs. As public advocates on Internet rights, we strongly support policies that ensure everyone has access to a fast affordable and open Internet.

As you may have guessed by now, “white spaces” are very political. And when lobbyists muddy up the debate the results are rarely productive. In reality, it boils down to this: The white spaces issue pits those who have access to spectrum, and want to keep it for themselves, against those who don’t, and want spectrum to be used to serve other purposes as well. These purposes include high-speed Internet access for those who have been bypassed by the broadband incumbents – or who simply cannot afford access.

In the middle of it all is developing technology, which (despite what you have heard from some of the spectrum haves here today) can and will meet acceptable and certifiable standards of non-interference. Federal Communications Commission engineers are sorting that out at the moment, as they should. And we can all foresee a day in the not-so-distant future when both the haves and the have nots will be able to enjoy this spectrum in ways that benefit us all.

Politics should not stand in the way of better technology, especially technology that could bring vast benefits to so many. So let’s put the politics of white spaces aside for a moment to look at the problem, and the opportunity.

The Problem: U.S. Broadband Falling Behind

The divide is wide. Since Internet access became publicly available in the 1990s, America has failed to deliver the Internet's tremendous benefits to everyone. As a result, millions still stand on the wrong side of the "digital divide."

Since 2001, the United States has fallen from fourth in the world in broadband penetration to 15th in the world today. Worse, our growth rate over the past year ranks us 20th out of the 30 countries.

The divide is economic. In America, only 35 percent of homes with less than $50,000 in annual income have a high-speed Internet connection. Moreover, nearly 20 million Americans live in areas that are not served by a single broadband provider; tens of millions more live in places where there is just a single provider of high-speed Internet service.

And it's racial. Broadband's promise is not being realized equally across all racial and ethnic groups in our country. Only 40 percent of racial and ethnic minority households have access to broadband, while 55 percent of non-Hispanic white households are connected.

American consumers pay far too much for far too little compared to citizens in other countries. We have the eighth-highest monthly rates for broadband service among leading developed nations. In real terms, this means Internet users in Japan pay about half the price for an Internet connection that's 20 times faster than what's commonly available to people in the United States.

In New York City, these problems are acute. A July 2008 report for the city by Diamond Management & Technology Consultants found that nearly three out of four low-income New Yorkers lack a high-speed Internet connection in their home. That's more than 666,000 households, according to the report, or literally millions of New Yorkers. The problem is concentrated in public housing, and especially among public housing residents over the age of 65 -- less than 5 percent of whom are connected to broadband.

The Opportunity: Unlicensed White Spaces in New York City

Free Press analyzed the availability of frequencies in the television band for the five Burroughs of the city (see attached). We found that after the February 2009 digital transition there will be ten vacant channels in New York City.

That means that 20 percent of the entire TV band will be sitting idle. This is amazing given the usual spectrum crowding that occurs in heavily populated areas. By way of contrast, in Juneau, Alaska, 74 percent of the same band will be vacant.

Still, 20 percent is a lot of airspace and it can be put to good use.

White spaces are especially suitable for low-power broadband use. Better than WiFi, white spaces are capable of transmitting high-speed Internet signals great distances and through concrete buildings.

Important, if we were to limit this spectrum to licensed use, there would be NO white spaces for use in New York City – none at all. This is because unlicensed use permits low-power smart devices, such as those being created by engineers at Phillips and Motorola. Licensed use does not.

This underscores an important point: Licensing of this spectrum in New York City means no new broadband providers. Opening white spaces on an un-licensed basis represents one of the last, best hopes we have to deliver vital broadband services to New Yorkers who need them most.

For the promises of the Internet to be met, we need to make sound decisions that encourage faster, more open and affordable access for everyone. The successful use of new broadband technologies are vital to the future of our country, whether you live in Juneau, Alaska, New York City or all places in between. Opening white spaces for unlicensed access is the right decision for the right technology.

It's important that the Council of the City of New York not stand in the way of this important innovation. As it is written, this resolution is not only unnecessary, but also a step in the wrong direction.

Instead, we urge you to ask the FCC to decide in the public's best interest, and that is to move rapidly to open white spaces for everyone.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Better than Lipstick on a Pig

If you feel that pigs with lipstick and Paris Hilton have hijacked our political discourse this election season, you're not alone.

Mainstream news shows have devoted too much attention to trivia, and too little to information that voters say matter most.

This Friday's presidential debate with Jim Lehrer of PBS moderating may be a chance to get the media back on track. But if past is prologue, we can expect another parade of the petty.

Media Matters analyzed the 2,304 questions asked during the 31 primary debates earlier this year. Of these, only 9 percent of the questions addressed the economy -- counted by Americans as the most important issue today, followed by the war, healthcare, energy policy and jobs.

Meanwhile, debate moderators piled on the fluff, asking questions about personality and other "non-substantive" matters more than 30 percent of the time.

The final Democratic primary debate, with ABC News' Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, was a low point. The moderators devoted the first 45 minutes to questions about flag pins, former pastors and candidate sniping before raising a single question about Iraq or the economy.

Free Press hopes to help remedy this during this Friday's debate. We have devised a "Citizens Media Scorecard" that will allow thousands of debate watchers to "score" the performance of the media moderators during the final four presidential and vice presidential debates.

These real-time ratings will be analyzed by esteemed media researcher Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report and immediately fed back to hundreds of political and media reporters as soon as the debates are finished -- allowing the public to weigh in before the media spin cycle gets out of control.

Debates are marquee moments in American elections. The few journalists selected to participate -- and the media narrative that follows -- will play a defining role in determining our next president.

Before Americans close the curtains on this election, we deserve real political discourse from our media. If the news organizations aren't up to the task, it's up to us to hold our media -- and through them, our leaders -- accountable.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Why DC Lobbyists Fear 'White Spaces'

What if I told you we could use empty TV channels to connect millions of people to the Internet?

The technology exists to do just that. But a powerful corporate lobby is standing in the way with a multimillion-dollar misinformation campaign aimed at Congress and the Federal Communications Commission.

This month and next Washington will face a critical choice: Use new technology to open the Internet for everyone, or side with the lobbyists and prevent millions from getting connected.

This latest front in the battle over the future of the Internet is about "white spaces" -- empty frequencies between TV channels on the public airwaves.

white spaces
If you remember the days of rabbit ears on your set, white spaces are the static between the network channels as you turned the dial.

New technology can open this unused spectrum to powerful high-speed Internet services -- sending open and ubiquitous broadband signals over mountains and through buildings, potentially connecting tens of millions of Americans now left off the grid.

Washington Smoke Screens

Here's the problem: The National Association of Broadcasters and cell phone companies want to hoard this publicly owned resource. Their lobbyists have been blitzing Washington with misinformation to prevent white spaces from being used to benefit millions of people.

Unfortunately, many key decision makers in simply lack the bandwidth to look into white spaces technology and decide for themselves. Instead they rely upon the lobbyists who come knocking with lies and spin meant to paint this technology as a danger to mankind.

But broadcasters are simply blowing smoke to protect their FCC granted broadcast fiefdoms. As a result, we're being kept from using airwaves that could help fill one of the biggest holes in our national infrastructure.

Spanning the Divide

Too many Americans have been left on the wrong side of the digital divide -- sidelined in a nation that increasingly demands high-speed Internet access to get things done, keep up in school and find out what's happening in the world. The answer to this problem is right in front of us.

This week tens of thousands of people have signed a letter urging Congress and the FCC to skewer the industry spin and serve the public by opening white spaces to unlicensed, high speed Internet services.

Members of the Wireless Innovation Alliance (including Free Press) have declared Wednesday "White Spaces Day." We will bring your letters to the Hill and deliver them to your member of Congress.

Unless we urge Congress and the FCC to push back against industry and open up white spaces, Washington could side with the lobbyists and deny us one of our last, best opportunities to build a better Internet.

It's a familiar story. Big media companies use any means possible to squash new ideas that threaten their control over information.

It's time we changed that status quo and opened up white spaces for everyone.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

St. Paul in the Hot Seat over Journalist Arrests

Journalists and St. Paul citizens assembled outside St. Paul City Hall today to deliver more than 60,000 letters to Mayor Chris Coleman and prosecuting attorneys demanding that they immediately drop charges against all journalists arrested this week as they covered the Republican National Convention

By Friday morning, dozens of journalists, photographers, bloggers and videomakers had been booked by the Ramsey County Sheriff's office in what appears to have been an orchestrated round-up of media makers covering protests during the convention.

"From the pre-convention raids to the ongoing harassment and arrests of journalists, these have been dark days for press freedom in the United States," said Nancy Doyle Brown of the Twin Cities Media Alliance, who delivered the letters on behalf of the nonpartisan media reform group Free Press.

Stories That Will Never Be Told

She was joined by a crowd of local activists and journalists, including Amy Goodman and Nicole Salazar of Democracy Now!, KFAI-FM radio host Andy Driscoll and Mike Bucsko, executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Guild.

"Tragically, there are stories that the world needed to hear this week that will never be told," Brown said. "They won't be told because reporters working on them were sitting in the back of squad cars, were stripped of their cameras, or were face down on the pavement with their hands cuffed behind their backs."

On Thursday, the final night of the convention, it appears that authorities ratcheted up their attacks on both protesters and credentialed journalists, lobbing tear gas and percussion grenades into crowds and arresting student journalists, local TV photographers, Associated Press reporters, and two MyFox journalists, among others.

Other journalists have also been pepper-sprayed, and reporters with I-Witness were held at gunpoint during a "pre-emptive" raid aimed at disrupting protesters last weekend.

Mayor Chris Coleman has refused to reply to my repeated calls and e-mails asking for his response to allegations that journalists were specifically targeted by authorities.


A crowd of journalists -- many of whom were arrested earlier in the week -- entered City Hall and delivered the letters into the hands of St. Paul Deputy Mayor Ann Mulholland and City Attorney John Choi, who briefly told them that the legal system will sort out their concerns.

The mayor and public officials "need to do a post-mortem to examine the circumstances" of these arrests, said Bucsko, who represents reporters at the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I hate to think that journalists were being targeted," adding that it appeared that "there was discrimination based upon their jobs."

The signatures were collected in less than 72 hours as people nationwide expressed their outrage over St. Paul's attempts to stifle the many journalists documenting events surrounding the tightly scripted spectacle in the city's Xcel Center.

Wellstone's Worst Nightmare

Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, The Newspaper Guild, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Reporters Without Borders, the Society for Professional Journalists and the Writers Guild of America, East have also sounded the alarm over the unusually harsh treatment by city authorities.

"The city of St. Paul has a black eye right now, and I must say that Paul Wellstone would be rolling in his grave," said Denis Moynihan of Free Speech TV, who spoke outside City Hall today.

"Mayor Coleman must salvage the damaged reputation of the state and the city by dropping charges against all journalists immediately."

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

St. Paul Mayor and Media Mum on Journalism Crackdown

In St. Paul this week, a new generation of media makers is under assault by the city's mayor and law enforcement officers.

These local officials think freedom of the press extends only to their allies in mainstream media.

For the rest of us, practicing journalism is a crime.

While reports of brutal police arrests and home invasions are still coming in, by Tuesday night the picture became clear. Dozens of journalists, photographers, bloggers and videomakers had been arrested in an orchestrated round up of independents covering the Republican National Convention.

Targeting the New Press

The list of those detained ranges from the well-known (Democracy Now's Amy Goodman) and well-established (Associated Press photographer Matt Rourke) -- to the bootstrapping bloggers and video makers who are covering local protests for TheUptake.org, Twin Cities Indymedia, I-Witness and other outlets.

Police -- with firearms drawn -- raided a meeting of the video journalists and arrested independent media, bloggers and videomakers. Journalists covering protests have been pointed out by authorities, blasted with tear gas and pepper spray, and brutalized while in custody.

St Paul PoliceDemocracy Now's Goodman reports that a U.S. Secret Service agent ripped her press credentials from her neck the moment she identified herself to him as a member of the media. Her producers emerged yesterday from their jail cells bloodied and scarred, reporting unusually harsh treatment at the hands of local and federal authorities.

Mayor Coleman's Silence

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman hasn't responded to repeated phone and e-mail requests for comments on the targeting of journalists. Instead he praised the work of Police Chief John Harrington and painted those arrested as a small band of outsiders and vandals intent upon committing felonies against the good people of his city.

In less than a day, more than 35,000 people have signed a letter from Free Press (my employer) to Mayor Coleman condemning the arrests and demanding that he and local prosecutors immediately "free all detained journalists and drop all charges against them."

But when Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald pressed Harrington and Coleman to respond to widespread reports of journalist arrests, Harrington claimed ignorance while Coleman stood silent at his side.

Police spokesman Don Walsh intervened only to say that "arrest have been made" and that all those arrested were involved in criminal activities and not "simply non-participants."

Strib Forgets About Free Speech

In a bizarre editorial on Tuesday, the Minneapolis St. Paul Star Tribune hailed the police crackdown as "appropriate," blaming unrest on outsiders from beyond the Twin Cities.

"Many of those arrested in St. Paul weren't carrying IDs or wouldn't give their names. Those who were identified came from Lexington, Ky.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Portland, Ore., and dozens of other U.S. cities," they wrote. "These weren't the sons and daughters of Highland Park and south Minneapolis."

The Star Tribune itself is owned by out-of-towners from Avista Capital Partners, a New York City private equity firm specializing in energy, healthcare and media investments.

Other than a brief story about Goodman's arrest, the paper has failed to report on the apparent targeting of independent reporters, even though groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have sounded the alarm.

Sweeping Real Journalism Under the Carpet

Here we have every indication of an orchestrated assault by federal and local law enforcement agencies to stifle independent sources of information. As shocking as this conduct is, more disturbing is the fact that the mayor's office and the local daily seem so unconcerned.

It's not difficult to understand why. With local leaders making every effort to roll out the welcome mat for mainstream media and the GOP, they'd rather sweep beneath the carpet those pesky independents who are showing us a side of the spectacle that is less scripted for prime time.

As an elected representative, Mayor Coleman should take a stand on behalf of a free press, rein in aggressive and violent tactics by local law enforcement, stop the targeting of journalists and immediately drop all charges against them.

As a powerful news organization, the Star Tribune should know better, and should be sticking up for a free press, regardless of the form it takes.

For now, the democratic spirit of journalism is alive not in the Star Tribune newsroom, but among the video-blogs and cellphone reports that are bubbling up from outside the convention.