Just as consumers are becoming aware of things like net neutrality and media consolidation, Congress and the North Carolina legislature are acting like nobody’s paying any attention.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted down a bill that would have enshrined network neutrality in national Internet policy, but gave the go-ahead to the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act. The COPE Act is a massive policy overhaul that would allow powerful telecommunications companies to roll out the next generation of technology–Internet TV, especially–on the terms they’ve set for themselves, free from the public interest requirements of yesteryear. The Senate is now considering its own version; based on hearings held June 13 in Washington, things don’t look good.

Also on June 13, the Finance Committee of the N.C. House passed the Video Service Competition Act without amending any of the no-brainer changes suggested by public interest groups that would have made it a little less of a travesty. A state version of the Internet TV provisions currently winding through U.S. Congress, this bill would abolish the current rules governing cable television service. Telephone companies such as Verizon and BellSouth have been pushing hard for this bill, because it would allow them to expand from broadband Internet to video service without having to negotiate with local governments. The bill will soon go to the full House for a vote; the Senate version, having passed one committee, makes one more committee stop before going to the floor.

Even progressive Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham) was an early supporter, but while working on the House committee that passed it, he said his past support turned to concern.

“When I co-sponsored the bill, I had been assured that the income and racial discrimination language was strong enough to protect consumers,” Luebke said. “I now believe that we do need stronger consumer protections.” But Luebke is in the minority. The telephone companies really want it to pass. And while public interest groups ranging from the N.C. Justice Center to the AARP have argued against it, the only group with real heft among legislators, the N.C. League of Municipalities, offered only lukewarm opposition. “When you have one side that really wants it and the other side that’s mostly concerned with the revenue being intact, the consumer protection and public access issues don’t get as much debate as they ought to,” Luebke said.

As if that weren’t enough to keep track of, the Federal Communications Commission is planning to unravel the very hard-fought victory won through public outcry by changing, once again, the ownership rules governing radio, television and newspapers. Last time around, it was FCC Chairman Michael Powell who pushed for further media consolidation; the relaxed rules passed, but widespread outrage led them to be overturned. This time around, it’s Chairman Kevin Martin pushing the same agenda. An announcement is expected June 21 that will detail the plan to relax ownership rules in such a way as to allow, for example, one company to own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.

A call to Martin’s office was not returned at press time, so none of his staff could say whether Martin plans to attend a public meeting with FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps in Asheville on June 28 to discuss these rule changes. Organizers don’t expect to see him there, however. When Copps and Adelstein had one of these tour stops at Duke Law School in 2003–the first time the rules were being changed–Powell didn’t show.

Free Press, a national, nonpartisan media policy group, has helped organize similar hearings across the country as a way for local communities to give feedback directly to the FCC. Free Press has been at the forefront of a variety of interconnected telecom issues, including net neutrality (for it), funding for public broadcasting (trying to save it), and the COPE Act (trying to stop it).

On June 13, Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, urging members not to pass the Communications, Consumer’s Choice and Broadband Deployment Act.

“We strongly support the goal of this legislation: to expand consumer choice and access to competitive video and broadband services,” Scott said. “However, our haste to bring competition must not result in a blind giveaway to one industry or another.”

Without requiring video and broadband providers to build out in poor and rural neighborhoods, the bill would allow those companies to cherry-pick wealthy neighborhoods, leaving the digital divide to widen. “The unintended consequence will be systematic redlining on a national scale,” Scott said, “leaving millions of consumers with empty promises.”

Which brings us back to Raleigh, where state legislators seem determined to make the same mistake. The Video Service Competition Act lacks build-out requirements, meaning the rural and minority communities clamoring for more choices in TV service are very unlikely to get them. But the bill would impose requirements on public access, government and educational (or PEG) channels–requirements that are so unrealistic they threaten to destroy the viability of those channels.

So the question is: Are state legislators aware of the consequences of this bill? Do they realize that, if it passes, it will mean the demise of small-scale public channels across the state? Do they understand that it means giving up the public services–some of which power school Internet access, traffic light systems and the like–that were negotiated over the past 30 years? And are they aware that federal legislation, if it passes, will immediately override any state legislation on the matter? What’s the big fat hurry anyway?

“I would like to see more amendments succeed on the floor,” Luebke said. But he’s not hopeful that much will change. “Mostly we have to hope that the consumer protections that we have in there will alert us to problems that might occur after the bill becomes law.” The N.C. Attorney General’s office is scheduled to make a report in 2008, which offers public interest groups a window to make changes. “Legislation is a multi-year process,” Luebke said. “I think all of us with concerns about the bill need to monitor it extremely closely if it goes into effect this year, and be prepared to demand changes to the bill the next time the issue is considered.”

The train is leaving the station. To pull the brake cord, we’ll have to reach a critical mass of legislators through good old-fashioned
telephone, e-mail and letter writing. And whether we succeed or fail, we’ve got to let them know we’re paying attention–and we’re in it for the long haul.

Free Press’ “Town Meeting on the Future of Media” will take place Wednesday, June 28 at 6 p.m. in the Ferguson Auditorium in the Laurel Building at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in Asheville. For more information, go to www.freepress.net/future/=asheville.