It used to be called "cable television" when it brought into the home a clearer picture and a few more channels of entertainment programs. Now it is referred to as "cable telecommunications." Over the next 10 years, you will be subscribing to cable telecommunications for many more channels than you now receive, as well as for home shopping and banking, instant polling, consumer information, local community programming, adult education courses, home burglar alarms, fire and medical emergency alerts, electronic mail and political programming.
Should cable, a dynamic monopoly, be owned and managed by an adversarial and profit-oriented entity, or should it be owned and managed by a service-oriented entity that provides for and encourages effective public participation? I believe it is important to establish the greatest possible public involvement in and control of cable.
One franchise, to be awarded by the District government, will effectively preclude any other cable companies. If the company that is awarded the franchise should default on its promises, or fail to provide services that were not contemplated at the time of the award, it would be almost impossible to force compliance or upgrading. One need only look at the recent problems in Arlington to find an example of the frustration of trying to deal with a belligerent cable company.
We need to keep the profits and jobs from cable in the District. The $20 a month or so that each customer will spend on cable will be worth millions of dollars in annual profit and hundreds of jobs. This money and these jobs should assist local economic development, and the question should be managed by local people sensitive to local culture, political debate and community spirit.
The cable industry wants it all. The cable companies have recently been lobbying Congress very effectively for deregulation, including legislation that would prohibit most local regulation and would give cable companies total control of all channels. And in some lawsuits, industry attorneys have argued that cable companies should be allowed to ignore even those written agreements with city governments that were negotiated during the franchising process.
These are practical alternatives. Municipal ownership is one possibility. Without the ability to go into the bond market, though, this is not a likely prospect for the District government. As an alternative, the D.C. council might charter a development corporation that could go into the private capital market.
Municipal ownership has the potential to provide additional revenue to the city government. Problems such as quality of management and safeguards against censorship would have to be addressed, but they would arise regardless of ownership.
My preference is for ownership by a consumer cooperative, controlled by the cable subscribers. A cooperative is considered as private ownwership with many of the benefits of public ownership. The subscriber/members would elect a board of directors that would contain a cross-section of the community. Any profits would be returned to the members as a patronage refund.
Initially the need for large amounts of capital and management expertise may require a combination of private and public involvement. This should not prevent the D.C. council from adopting a plan for maximum initial public involvement, with that share and role gradually increasing. Cable telecommunications is too important an opportunity for us not to have some community participation and a long-term strategy of eventual community control.