Bill Moyers Takes on the Net

Here’s a show that looks like it has everything a good work of fiction needs: laughs, chills and, above all, verisimilitude, the art of sounding true while blending fact and fiction to suit the purposes of a good story. “The Net @ Risk” (complete with that oh-so-90s @), part of the Moyers on America series, airs Wednesday night on PBS to make the case for big government’s interference in all things Internet and Web. While I have not seen the whole show, a look at the clips available at the Moyers on America page gives the impression that Moyers and his team will assert that without network neutrality, municipal broadband, and other government intervention in the market, our First Amendment rights are toast. We will be treated to one of those soft-spoken narrators who never met and audience he couldn’t talk down to, who will let loose with such whoppers as the data over copper is limited to 1Mb/s (it’s more like 13 Mbs) and that 100 Mb/s fiber connections are required for any sort of interactive audio and video, such as participation in a town meeting. So much for the laughs. The chills, at least in a South Park sort of way, are supplied in a scene where Joan Blades of and Michele Combs of the Christian Coalition appear on camera together to endorse network neutrality, providing a juxtaposition of radical stereotypes–the aging, wirey-haired ex-hippie and the big-haired, cherub-cheeked, heavily-lipsticked southern evangelical. As if that isn’t enough, Moyers is going to profile the municipal broadband effort in Lafayette, La., which has been stalled for more than a year because the city hasn’t been able to craft a financing plan compliant with a state law that prohibits municipalities from using revenues from utility monopolies (e.g., electricity) to pay off bonds issued for competitive operations (e.g., broadband). However, it is my suspicion that the producers chose Lafayette because it exists only on paper. They can sidestep the real-world financial problems faced by cities that went ahead with these disastrous plans. Something tells me we won’t hear about Ashland, Ore.; Marietta, Ga.; Lebanon, Ohio; Bristol, Va.; or Provo, Utah, during this program. But it’s the distortion that will be most troubling. In the preview of the Lafayette segment, Joey Durel, city parish president of Lafayette, tells the camera that without the municipal broadband, Lafayette would have to wait 20 to 30 years for commercial fiber deployment, when, in truth, Cox Cable has been deploying fiber in Lafayette since last year. In the full program, will it be noted that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco effectively blocked cable competition by vetoing a cable franchise reform bill that would have allowed BellSouth to apply for a statewide franchise to offer video? In the net neutrality preview, the narrator talks about efforts “to restore” net neutrality, even though net neutrality was never encoded as law to begin with. Today, they exist as FCC guidelines, which the commission has shown a willingness to enforce. I will tune in Wednesday, but with reservations. From the tone of the preview and the press releases that accompany it, it’s clear that the report will come down heavily in favor of government regulation of the Internet. I hope it will at least address some of the potential consequences, mostly unintended, that would likely occur if the government prohibited quality-tiering and packet prioritization of Web applications, or allowed cities and towns to pour millions of dollars into broadband systems that, time after time, have proved neither competitive nor cheap.