Promises, Promises

What the telcos aren't telling you about deregulation

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This summer, millions of people stumbled upon The Information Superhighway & You, a new TV 'program' about developments in digital media. Lured in by friendly host George Plimpton and guest appearances by Eric Bogosian and Laurie Anderson, viewers learned what the merging systems of telephone, video and computer delivery will mean for 'Joe-Average American.' A series of vignettes showed digital media helping people in medicine and in human rights organizations, while an elderly woman in a wheelchair revealed the personal joy of on-line friendship and romance and speculated about the interactive media future. By the time an AT&T spokesperson appeared, pushing the deregulation of the telephone industry as the ticket to digital utopia, viewers may or may not have realized they were watching an infomercial. In an age when O.J. and Hugh Grant are considered more newsworthy than telecommunication policy, curious people everywhere were no less ripe for the pitch.

AT&T, Bell Atlantic, Time-Warner, and other telecommunications giants seeking a slice of the new media pie are working hard to present a warm and fuzzy vision of the information superhighway as the road to public and personal good. What the glitzy campaigns don't mention is that the deregulatory policies they spent millions lobbying for in Congress, and are now pitching to consumers, are poised to serve corporate coffers at the expense of diversity and public interest requirements. The Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995, the first major telecommunications bill since 1934, purports to break up long-standing monopolies in the name of deregulated competition. But by allowing the phone companies to buy cable companies, newspapers, and TV stations in the same service area, the bill opens the door to even more concentrated media monopolies in the future.

The legislation, which Clinton still has the option of vetoing, panders to telco giants with the resources to build the superhighway infrastructure. Contrary to their PR campaigns, the developers are planning a one way toll road as opposed to a two-way public highway, with user interaction limited to moneymakers like home shopping, entertainment on demand, and video games, writes Joshua Shenk Wolf in the Washington Monthly (June 1995). According to Wolf, 'Common carriage,' a term that dates back to the railroad monopolies and means that companies must serve everyone for the same price, is about to become a thing of the past. 'The metamorphosed phone/cable/computer companies of the future could become one-stop infoshops,' warns Pat Aufderheide in her regular In These Times (June 12, 1995) media column. 'They could stomp any remaining little guys, and make sure no new, diverse sources of information get big enough to bother with.

Original to Utne Reader Online, July 1995.

Joshua Wolf Shenk, 'The Robber Barons of the Information Highway,' WASHINGTON MONTHLY (June 1995). Subscriptions: $39.50/yr. (10 issues) available from Box 587, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.

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