Thursday, March 09, 2006

The New Media Monopoly

Originally published at AlterNet

Corporate Copulation
The race is on to control the future of American media. Unfortunately, those vying for the prize are a limited cadre of corporations hostile to the public interest.

On one hand, there are the remnants of the 1984 breakup of Ma Bell -- four formerly Baby Bells that now dominate the multibillion-dollar marketplace for telecommunications. Over the past 10 years, these have rapidly morphed into massive corporations by swallowing up smaller competitors and positioning themselves atop the heap.

AT&T's announcement earlier this week that it plans to acquire BellSouth is a stunning development in the unrelenting shift toward fewer choices and bigger companies -- essentially stitching back together the monopoly that ruled telecommunications three decades ago.

The aim of AT&T's $67 billion merger is to assemble a new behemoth to dominate the "triple play" of modern communications: voice, video and data. In the near future, all new media -- telephone calls, radio, television or the web -- will travel via a broadband connection to your home. The corporations that control this network are racing to gobble up as many competitors as possible before consumers complete the new media shift.

Left behind, of course, is the American public. As large telecom companies merge and jockey for position with the cable industry over the most lucrative broadband markets, the communities at the edges have been left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 60 percent of households with incomes over $150,000 annually have broadband access, compared to just 10 percent of households with incomes below $25,000.

These corporations have done a lousy job rolling out their services to rural areas and low-income urban communities they've deemed unprofitable. As a result, America has fallen from third to 16th place in penetration of high-speed internet services per capita.

But even those who can afford to pay for connectivity are increasingly subject to limited choices at higher prices. According to a Free Press report late last year, the number of Americans who have only one or no choice of broadband provider is near 50 percent.

Meanwhile, the cost of broadband in other countries has dropped dramatically as speeds have increased. On a per megabit basis, U.S. consumers pay five to 25 times more than broadband users in France and Japan. Nations such as South Korea, Finland, and even Canada have much faster internet connections at a lower cost than what is available here.

Not only are Americans being offered limited choices at higher costs than other countries, the cable and telecom companies that control access to the "pipes" now want to control the content and services that are delivered to customers.

Consumer advocates and internet rights groups are especially concerned about AT&T chief executive Edward Whitacre's outspoken resistance to the principle of "network neutrality," a standard that ensures all users can access the content or run the applications and devices of their choice without discrimination from internet service providers.

"I think the content providers should be paying for the use of the network," Whitacre told the Financial Times earlier this year. "Now they might pass it on to their customers who are looking at a movie, for example. But that ought to be a cost of doing business for them. They shouldn't get on [the network] and expect a free ride."

In December, BellSouth's William Smith told reporters that he would like to turn the internet into a "pay-for-performance marketplace," where his company could charge for the "right" to have certain services load faster than others.

What this would mean for you is higher costs, fewer choices and less control.

Kick-starting the revolution
AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others could block you from viewing a favorite podcast or blog, cut off internet phones unless we use their service, or force you to download MP3s from their company store by slowing access to outside music sites. The profit motive of a few corporations would supplant the freedoms of all users, determining which features end up shaping our digital future.

These types of corporate schemes discriminate against those of us who rely on the internet as an accessible tool to spread new ideas, spark innovation and encourage dissent.

Now AT&T executives are asking regulators at the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission to rubber stamp their merger. They argue, incredulously, that bigger is better for consumers.

At a moment marked by America's precipitous decline in the global ranks of communications leaders, the Justice Department and FCC should correct our problems -- not exacerbate them. This merger must be stopped.


Indy6 said...

Corporations are sociopathic at their very core. Interestingly enough, according to studies done, back in the 80s, most of the people who have great success in the corporate world test out as sociopaths or functional psychotics. They care about nothing but the bottom line and if that means helping one politcal party or another gain and keep political power, then so be it.

Politicians are nothing but middle men for corporate mobs. If we have any chance in hell of stopping these fools from denying us the Internet as a political tool for gathering and passing on information, we will have to commit to doing what we must, and that may not be pretty, and certainly not for the faint hearted.

Money is the key to everything in our society. So, in order to strke fear into the greedy little hearts of the corporate bastards, we must find ways to deprive them of money or cost them money, and make it damned plain that we, the people, have declared war on them.

Shape up or we will bring the whole damnable structure down.

Tommy Mandel said...

Is there any hope, since The Corporation seems to have evolved into the new dominant life form on this planet? And we, humans, mere bacteria in the gut of Corporations?

Only for a new, out-of-the-loop, hypernetwork, the way the internet started.

we've got to find the technology to end-run what you so clearly describe, as the takeover of the internet by Business As Usual. circumvent it. make it irrelevant.

But as long as the main use of the Internet is the delivery of Corporate Content (big movies, big record companies' music) maybe it doesn't make any difference: the groundbreaking content will always be 'outside the law".

And we know what John Wesley Harding said about living outside the law!

Tommy Mandel said...

Is there any hope, since The Corporation seems to have evolved into the new dominant life form on this planet? And we, humans, mere bacteria in the gut of Corporations?

Only for a new, out-of-the-loop, hypernetwork, the way the internet started.

we've got to find the technology to end-run what you so clearly describe, as the takeover of the internet by Business As Usual. circumvent it. make it irrelevant.

But as long as the main use of the Internet is the delivery of Corporate Content (big movies, big record companies' music) maybe it doesn't make any difference: the groundbreaking content will always be 'outside the law".

And we know what John Wesley Harding said about living outside the law!

Argon said...

It is a seemingly hopeless situation given that we will not have a redefinition of the corporation as long as the Supreme Court is populated by rightwing ideologs like Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito. Santa Clare must be overturned and all the subsequent "Corporate Personhood" and "Corporate Civil Rights".

The only solution that I can see is to return the telecommunication fiberoptic/microwave/satelite grid to a regulated monopoly. Having lived through the days of Ma Ball, the breakup, to the consolidation of now, we were better off with the regulated monoply.

In our society certain facilities and services are a sole source natural monopoly. By their physical nature, you cannot choose the electric line, gas, cable, land line phone, water, and sewer. In this age I do believe that cable/land-lines are a utility - necessary to successfully function in todays society.

The problem is when business creates a pretense that utilities has competition like toothpaste. Basicly the telecommunication utility companies of today violate the economics of scale, the more customers, the more each customer is charged.

The reason the Energy industry has been heavily regulated is because they have historically and continuingly prove that they cannot be trusted with upholding the public good. We heard from the "hidden hand" of the "free market" in the form of the Enron Energy Traders.

Democracy does not equate Capitialism, Capitialisum is not Democratic. The two can be mutually exclusive. Economics is politics in disguise and this form of destructive capitialisum is the political system of plutocracy and ultimately feudalism.

Since knowledge is power and the internet forms the platform for the greatest access to collective information in the history of the planet - the control of this is paramont to those that would manipulate the population(s) and control society to their ends. Certainly control of all the information filters is necessary to manufacture consent (Chomsky) and squash dissent.

The fairness doctorine must be re-established.

JoshSN said...

Hey, I'm not nearly so unhappy as your other commenters here.

It's possible and legal for every single member of Congress to be replaced by a rational human being who will avoid being corrupted, but we have to start somewhere.

What do _you_ do to get involved.

In my little city, I'm an appointed member of the Planning Board, and the Planning Board representative to the Airport Advisory Council.

Sure, it doesn't make that much of a difference, and basically no difference at all outside my community, but any political career, even that of the eminently rational and incorruptible person who is right about everything, has to start somewhere.

Aaron B. Brown said...

Wow, nice post about an issue that needs more coverage. And I thought I was the only one in the world who's aware of these issues.

If I remember correctly, George W. Bush promised to expand Internet connectivity across the United States when he was campaigning for the presidency in 1999.

It's interesting to compare the broadband capacity of Japan and southern China to the United States. For the most part there is no comparison. Across much of Japan and in Singapore, they have on average five times broadband capacity of the best high-capacity broadband available in the US.

Also WiFi is proliferating across Asia at a phenomenal rate. In places like Tokyo Singapore and Hong Kong you can open up a laptop almost anywhere and be on the Internet. A few California municipalities I think are the only places in the US who are considering providing public WiFi for the general good.

BellSouth is my current telephone and Internet supplier, my only other choice being Comcast. But having been ripped off for years on my cable by them, I would never even consider using Scumcast as an Internet provider, even though cable is significantly faster than DSL which is what BellSouth provides. And I definitely don't feel bad at all about stealing cable from Comcast for more than 7 years.

I'm not surprised BellSouth is being bought out because they really are rather below par, overcharging for less actual service when it comes to bandwidth provided. In other words I'm paying more now and getting less bandwidth than I was a few years ago, regardless of the propaganda they put out.

As for AT&T, I kept those suckers on the line for more than three years back in the 90s, by continually changing my long-distance provider to MCI, and then getting them to pay me to change it back. I got to the point where every 60 days either MCI or AT&T was paying me $100 to change back. Got back some of that long-distance money they squeezed out of me over the years.

It seems that corporate monopolies are becoming more and more fashionable every year, especially with the Republicans controlling everything. Where the hell is Teddy Roosevelt when you need him?

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