"Captive Audience" author Susan Crawford says that net neutrality and the pending merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable are complicated subjects that journalists need to cover. Photo by Jonathan Seitz

"Captive Audience" author Susan Crawford says that net neutrality and the pending merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable are complicated subjects that journalists need to cover. Photo by Jonathan Seitz

For 77 percent of Americans, the only option for high-speed, high-capacity wired Internet access is through their local cable monopoly. As cable broadband providers consolidate, Americans are left in a marketplace with virtually no competition to keep prices down and drive innovation.

While high-speed Internet access has moved from a luxury to a utility that underpins daily life, it is not subject to the same regulations as telephone service. Some cities, like Chattanooga, are taking matters into their own hands and building their own municipal fiber optic networks, with download speeds of up to one gigabit per second—up to 200 times faster than the national average.

Susan Crawford, author of “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age,” came to the Nieman Foundation to talk about net neutrality, the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, and why regulation is vital to ensuring faster and more equitable Internet access.

Covering net neutrality

Crawford highlighted how important it is for journalists to cover net neutrality, the principle that Internet service providers cannot prioritize or block Web traffic. Communications networks are vital to the operation of a free market, Crawford argues, and it’s the government’s job to make sure these vital services are reliable and ubiquitous. Common carriage regulations achieved that for telephone communications; the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules were meant to ensure the same thing for broadband.

The FCC does not classify broadband providers as common carriers, which cannot discriminate among customers or prioritize certain types of traffic or phone calls over others. But it has imposed net neutrality on broadband providers through the Open Internet Order, issued in 2010. Verizon challenged the rule, and in January 2014 the US Court of Appeals DC Circuit struck down parts of the Open Internet Order. In the wake of the court ruling, Netflix agreed to pay Comcast for a direct connection to its network to improve the quality of streaming video. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is calling for stronger net neutrality rules.

The FCC has the power to reclassify broadband providers as common carriers, but doing so is politically risky. The CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said it would be “World War III” if the FCC attempts to regulate broadband providers as common carriers.

Funding local journalism

As more cities build their own municipal fiber networks, Crawford sees an opportunity for them to mandate an investment in local journalism: “It seems to me that, in many cities in the United States, a journalism school or some other neutral arbiter could be the recipient of funds that are paid in by subscribers when they pay for those fiber connections that then are dispersed to local journalists, because it’s a public good.”

The proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger

Until recently, there was very little media coverage of the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, and Crawford suggested a few reasons why reporters have been reluctant to cover the story. The regulatory, anti-trust and technological elements of the merger are complex. “There’s a long learning curve,” said Crawford, “You’ve got to get in it and stay with it for a while and there aren’t that many reporters who are willing to do that.” Crawford also raised the possibility that journalists are wary of covering the story because of the power Comcast wields as the owner of NBC Universal.

“As this really giant merger is pending, I think it’s getting everybody in the country to suddenly focus on the power of these guys, these cable actors,” Crawford said. The merger is coming under heavy scrutiny from the Senate and from attorneys general across the country. Stories about Comcast demanding Netflix pay for direct access to its network and a proposed plan to create a new streaming TV service with Apple have illustrated the cable provider’s power and its impact on consumers.

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