If the US Senate joins the House in passing the COPE Act, the Internet and cable television will change forever. Critics of the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act claim that American citizens will suffer a tremendous blow to the freedoms promised by the miracles of 21st century technology if the bill is signed into law.

Bill HR5252 enjoyed bi-partisan support as it was approved in the US House of Representatives by a vote of 321 to 101. Telephone and cable companies like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others have spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying federal and state representatives in their bid to ease regulations on Internet and cable network trafficking.

The COPE Act has staggering implications. Those who could be affected include:

  • Independent filmmakers and musicians, who in the Internet finally have a way around stifling corporate distribution monopolies, may be hindered by higher fees and restricted access.
  • Bloggers could be blocked if they continue to report stories that mainstream media companies find objectionable.
  • Community and political activists could be charged additional fees for organizing online.
  • Local municipalities would lose a valuable funding mechanism from local cable television franchise fees.
  • Public access television may eventually lose funding and be eliminated.
  • Poorer communities could lose broadband Internet and/or cable television access altogether.

The COPE Act gives telephone and cable companies the ability to prioritize the information sent over their networks. An amendment, which would have barred corporations from taking steps “to block, impair, degrade, discriminate against, or interfere with the ability of any person to use a broadband connection to access services over the Internet,” was defeated.

This amendment would have preserved Network Neutrality or “Net Neutrality”, a principle that ensures the network’s only function is to transfer data. The network’s owner (the broadband provider) is not allowed to choose which data is privileged with faster speeds or higher quality service. With a neutral network, like the Internet we enjoy today, all users have the ability to use the websites, content, software and hardware of their choice.

The bill would also create a national franchise agreement for cable television service. Under current laws, cable companies negotiate a franchise agreement with each local government and pay fees to the municipality when entering a new area. The COPE Act would eliminate that requirement and void current contracts once they expire.

Most local governments use the fees to fund public access channels and to subsidize lagging city treasuries. Those dollars will be drastically reduced under COPE and the various bills that are currently pending in 21 state legislatures.

In addition, both COPE and the state bills have no “build-out” requirement for the new franchise. This means providers are not required to offer service to all members of a given community as they are under current rules. AT&T has promised its investors that when a $4 billion upgrade to its fiber-optic networks is completed, they intend to serve 90 percent of “high-value” customers, 70 percent of “middle-value” consumers and only 5 percent of what it terms “low-value” households. Verizon representatives have made similar statements.

This indicates that both companies may choose to restrict Internet access or other network services to wealthy communities, leaving low-income, urban, elderly or rural residents with poor service, few choices and higher cable bills. As current cable franchise agreements end and older networks wear out, there may be no service available in some of these areas at all.

Supporters of the bill say these fears are speculative and unfounded. The Washington Post, which owns broadband provider Cable One, admits “that a non-neutral net will raise barriers to entry just slightly – but enough to be alarming.” Still, the Post argues that additional profit motives would encourage innovation in technologies that could speed up the network “pipes”. An Associated Press story suggests that “Monopolies in many cable TV markets could end” under the legislation and the bill “would increase competition and drive down prices.”

However, deregulation in the telecommunications industry has historically removed barriers for large corporations while raising the bar for small businesses that often don’t have the resources to compete. The public airwaves and print media have increasingly come under corporate ownership as the FCC has relaxed newspaper, radio and television station ownership rules. This results in limited choices for consumers, less music, and shrinking coverage of local news and culture. The COPE Act could potentially do the same for the Internet and could hasten the demise of already struggling community access TV around the country.

The Internet has become a necessary check on the corporate media, and a valuable tool that allows small business to compete in the global marketplace. The COPE Act stands to increase corporate domination of public communication and provides the mechanism for corporations to deny access to the very technologies that could potentially level the playing field for business and help make us all more free.

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