Friday, April 29, 2005

Declan Does Broadband

A "Talk of the Nation" broadcast attempts to cover the landscape on community wireless. It's worth a listen from beginning to end and my hat's off to NPR for slotting more than 30-minutes for this. Though, it's not without its shortcomings. Shortest among them was NPR's choice of on-air "expert," Declan McCullagh of CNet News, whose grasp of the wireless issue hardly qualifies him for sage comment.

According to Sascha Meinrath, call-in questions from NPR listeners provided more information and insight than McCullagh's often inaccurate answers. Such is the state of many journalists tasked with covering this important story. Those who are employed to ferret truth from lies often succumb to the spin emanating from Verizon, Comcast, Qwest, SBC Communications and the other commercial broadband incumbents.

McCullagh: How's My Driving?
McCullagh states that many municipal wireless systems use "old technology" (the 802.11b that's common to millions of wireless users) without noting that the newer technology (802.16) has yet to become a standard.

McCullagh hasn't spent much time investigating municipal wireless initiatives across the country. Had he done his leg work, CNet's political correspondent would have found a corps of intelligent, eager and innovative technology officers who to a person -- in my investigations at least -- are aware of the latest technologies in play and capable of upgrading their municipal systems to improve service.

In McCullagh's defense, CNet has tasked him with covering all issues at the intersection of technology and politics, which is no small feat for even the most adept journalist. It seems, though, that he's spread himself a mile wide and an inch deep.

Guests Ed Schwartz (executive committee member of Wireless Philadelphia) and Brad Mayer (information services manager from the city of Chaska) fill in the blanks. Their competency helped deflate the corporate spin emanating from other on-air commentators, especially as regards municipalities lacking the credentials to provide broadband to their citizens.

In the interest of balance, NPR brought on Verizon's VP of Media Relations Eric Rabe who serves his master well by repeating their standard, fact-challenged critique of government-subsidized systems. He fails, however, to note that it was under the stewardship of predatory and anti-competitive commercial broadband providers (such as Verizon) that America fell from 4th to 16th in national broadband penetration; or that Verizon is responsible for circulating to journalists and legislators a series of false "talking points" in a brazen attempt to tear down municipal broadband initiatives.

(You can read more about that in the excellent report by my colleagues Ben Scott and Frannie Wellings.)

Rabe also fails to mention that it was his company that pressured Pennsylvania lawmakers to introduce House Bill 30 (a bill authored largely by Verizon lawyers) that prohibits towns and cities from offering cheap broadband to their citizens without getting the prior approval of the local commercial service provider (which, in most cases, is Verizon). This is akin to requiring a city to seek prior approval from Barnes & Noble before building a library.

It would have been nice to have heard Rabe's response to that. Alas, you won't find it on NPR.

NPR is right to cover this story. It's also right to air the corporate view on this issue. Sadly, many in the media feel they've done their job by merely airing opposing points. When one side is spreading falsehoods, however, its incumbent upon journalists to know enough about the issue to skewer the lies.

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