Barney, a Beneficiary of the Broadband Plan?

If my brief look at just of one section is an indicator, then politicians, pundits and consultants will be discussing the content of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan for many years. Section 15.2 (page 302), Building a Robust Digital Media Ecosystem,starts by pointing out the significant challenges and declines faced by traditional journalism outlets, such as local newspapers and television news stations. Interestingly and ironically, the report does not make an explicit connection between the decline of these news channels and the ubiquity of news sources brought about by broadband – a classic case of creative destruction.

The report does point out that the Internet has, “led to the development of creative and experimental media,” such as the Voice of San Diego and the MinnPost. The authors point out that it is not clear whether the characteristics of the Internet (speed, low-cost, no filter, everyone can be a reporter) positively outweigh those of the traditional news outlets (journalistic review, high costs, fewer, but highly skilled reporters). As such, the FCC suggests questions surrounding the future of media, particularly local media, is still up for study as part of its Future of Media project, which will consist of workshops, public input and a report in 2010.

Switching from the private sector, the remainder of section 15.2 focuses on public media and asserts that, “public media will play a critical role in the development of a healthy and thriving media ecosystem.” The basis for this assertion is not clear, although the report does highlight some of the ways that public media is embracing broadband, such as PBS’s launch of a preschool video player, NPR’s Open API and Teachers’ Domain from WGBH.

The report suggests that public media is at a crossroads, since it is predominately structured around broadcast-based communication (again, the double-edged sword of broadband killing old business models while laying the foundation for new ones). Citing comments from Robert M. Winteringham, Deputy General Counsel for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the report suggests that public media will require additional funding to make the transition from broadcast to broadband. In recommendation 15.6, the report suggests that Congress should increase funding to public media for broadband-based distribution and content.

The report suggests funding online content by creating a digital trust fund endowed by revenues from a voluntary spectrum auction. What would happen is that the public television, like the commercial broadcasters, would return a portion of the public spectrum they currently consume to the federal government who, in turn, would auction it off for more valuable use (like wireless broadband). The local public media would still have a broadcast presence, but would share facilities with other public media outlets.

In the FCC’s view, Congress would dedicate these proceeds, “to endow a trust fund for the production, distribution, and archiving of digital public media.” The FCC believes the funds should be distributed so that a significant portion of the revenues goes back to the communities from which the spectrum was generated. The implication to this is that markets where the spectrum was more valuable would receive greater share of the revenue.  This sort of provision could create some interesting political wrangling and lobbying.   

To this last point, archiving of media is a related recommendation in this section (15.8), as the report proposes creation a federal government Internet video archive (video.gov). This archive would include more than just videos from government agencies and would include content documenting news coverage, elections and daily life. As such, the report has recommendations to provide copyright exemptions (15.7) and amendments to the Copyright Act to make it easier for public and broadcast media to contribute archival content to said national archive.  To this last point, it would be interesting to get the opinions of some of our attorney friends who specialize in copyright law to weigh in on the 6 paragraphs dealing with copyright.

One conclusion from my quick read is that the 2+ pages in this section of the report will undoubtedly sustain a mini-lobbying industry for months and maybe years into the future. If the FCC’s recommendations occur, it could be that our friends with the purple dinosaur will be a beneficiary of the broadband plan. 

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