October 20, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Now that cable modems are taking off, we can ask whether cable TV companies should contribute to the ideal of "universal service" on the Internet. One could argue and litigate for years over the government regulations entailed, but luckily it’s not at all necessary. The simple license agreements in place right now can fund efforts to bring communities onto the information highway.

The Lowell Telecommunications Corporation, a non-profit organization located in a low-income Massachusetts city, is on the leading edge of bringing city residents online. And it’s doing its work with money obtained by the city’s license agreement with the cable TV company. LTV staff suggests that its funding model could be used by community activists everywhere in the country.

The first step in funding is for a city to obtain all franchise fees to which its entitled from the cable company. A 1984 federal law regulating cable allows each city to take 5% of "gross signal" revenue. That includes cable modems and the monthly fees that users pay the cable company for Internet access. (It does not cover premium content, though.)

The second step is for community centers to persuade their local government that public access applies not only to traditional TV facilities but to the Internet.

Public access channels have been brought millions of people on TV since the beginning of the cable era. One can see everything on public access channels from school sporting events to town council meetings to raunchy avant-garde experimental videos. But the principle that members of the general population should be able to exchange views and culture on a mass level applies to email and Web pages as much as TV.

Internet training centers need, therefore, to wrest a portion of cable franchise fees from the city. This can be hard, because in many parts of the country the fees are just funneled into general city coffers. George Preston, executive director of LTC, says that when a representative from the Midwest took over the House committee regulating cable, he thought "public access" meant putting in a wheelchair ramp.

Whether to use cable fees for Internet access, educational TV, or filling potholes is a decision each community must make. But community center advocates can put forward a strong argument that providing an educational and democratic platform, not to mention training that is useful for 21st-century jobs, is a key responsibility in any community.

Take heart—if the argument passed muster in Lowell, Massachusetts, it can work anywhere. Lowell has all the financial and social problems you would find in an American city, but it chose to invest in an Internet community center.

Firmly working-class in composition, Lowell is the site of the textile mills that kicked off the industrial revolution in America. The city has continuously absorbed new immigrants throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Even now, a substantial number of inhabitants are first-generation Americans from Latin America and Asia.

But modern Lowell differs in one important respect from the city that drove the industrial revolution—its mills now provide employment for only a few museum staff. (The National Park Service runs tours and historical presentations in the vacated buildings.) The city leaders know they had better find something else for its population to do, and LTC offers a way forward.

One of the first public access TV centers in the country to include computers, LTC could be a model that activists in other cities can look to. An interview I had with Felicia Sullivan, computer resource coordinator, revealed many sides of a dynamic and socially committed organization.

LTC was funded in 1992 and opened its doors in 1995. Funded by fees collected by laws from the Continental Cablevision company (now MediaOne), it offers training on both television programming and Internet publishing. The site presents a bit of a split personality—one half dealing with traditional video and the other with Internet use—but its vision is uniformly one of helping people speak for themselves.

On the computer side, individuals can take advantage of such courses as desktop publishing, Internet basics, Web design, and multimedia production. But the strongest contribution LTC makes is to train other non-profit organizations. A typical client is the Division of Neighborhood Services, which is located in a public housing development and teaches residents skills to make the neighborhood safer.

By working with organizations that can’t afford their own computer staff, LTC helps them use the Internet to get information and communicate with peers. LTC partners with over 30 organizations and has 1200 individual members, 300 of whom come in on a regular basis (at least once a month).

Overall, the corporation trains a thousand people a year to use video and a thousand people (sometimes the same ones) to pick up Internet-related skills. While LTC does not work closely with the Lowell school system, teachers come in for training on their own.

Naturally, I asked about the relationship between LTC and the public library system, with which they’ve shared one project. Sullivan made an interesting observation about the differing goals of libraries and public access facilities. While librarians are dedicated to teaching people how to retrieve information, they are not oriented to helping people put up their own material. This critical element of community is what public access facilities offer—hence their many courses on content development.

The convergence of cable TV with other media has brought increased scrutiny from the FCC. In August, their Cable Services bureau released a 118-page report on how cable modems might change cable companies’ responsibilities to promote competition and universal service. But the report decided (wisely, in my opinion) not to propose any changes yet. And community centers need not wait for the FTC, as the LTC experience shows.

Making the Internet available to the public as both viewers and publishers becomes more important as public access on the airwaves shrinks. Government funding for public TV stations has been drastically cut.

Even spectrum has evaporated, according to Preston: many of the bands set aside for non-commercial radio by the 1934 Communications Act was sold off to commercial interests during the Reagan/Bush era. The Internet, even with all the limitations imposed by cost and educational requirements, becomes the one place where we have as much space as we all want to make a statement.

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