Baltimore’s FiOS hearings highlight the issues of ‘broadband equity’

Not all areas have the same access to information

April 30, 2010|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

If nothing else, last week's City Council hearing on why Verizon has not rolled out FiOS, its next-generation broadband Internet service, in Baltimore has put cable TV on the local media agenda.

Viewers, whose eyes might normally glaze over at talk of cable and Internet delivery systems, are clearly thinking and talking about why and how cable TV programming is and isn't delivered to homes in this city.

The discussion is part of a larger political and cultural one going on nationally about what some call "broadband equity": who does and who doesn't have access to the wealth of information now available to citizens of Digital America. And not all levels of citizenship in that realm of American media life are equal these days.

In fact, those who do not at least get on the digital train are going to be left hopelessly behind in terms of the kinds of news and information they can get from TV. And that includes customers in Baltimore City of Comcast, the cable and Internet provider that does do business here.

Comcast is in the midst of a digital upgrade, and customers have been receiving fliers in the mail telling them that in some cases they will need to contact Comcast and get new digital equipment if they want to continue to receive all their favorite channels. The good news: The basic equipment is free if you install it yourself, according to Comcast. The bad news: Ignore the fliers, and the next time you try to tune in an all-news cable channel like CNN during a big, breaking news event, it might not be there.

Baltimore Sun reporter Gus Sentementes covered the City Council hearing on FiOS, and at his BaltTech blog, he wrote, "There seem to be at least two camps in this debate: Those who question Verizon's motives for not expanding FiOS in Baltimore on moral and socioeconomic grounds. And then there are those who argue that as a for-profit business, it's really Verizon's call on where and when they roll out their services, based on market conditions."

This issue is becoming more and more political, which means I'll be writing about it more. And let me offer a word of warning to the city officials and City Council members who bristle at the suggestion that one reason Verizon isn't interested in rolling out new service in Baltimore City is the cozy relationship some folks on the city payroll seem to have had with TCI, the cable company that held the city franchise before Comcast took over.

Here's the word of warning: When I came to work as TV critic at The Sun in 1989, I was appalled by what I saw as potential conflicts of interest between city officials and TCI. But I was basically told at the time by lifetime residents of Baltimore, "That's the way things are done here in Chinatown, Jake."

I've been here long enough to know those days are gone. So be careful, or someone like me might go back and actually look beyond the high-sounding rhetoric coming out of City Hall today to examine the real history of relationships between elected officials and cable operators like TCI here.

As for the reality facing Comcast customers today, those who will be most affected are those who receive expanded basic cable, the second tier of Comcast cable coverage. This includes channels like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. By the end of the month, you will need digital equipment to receive them.

Comcast is offering a carrot for those who get the digital equipment: They will start getting 35 additional channels at no extra cost — including AMC, Bloomberg TV and the NFL Network.

Like so many things in media today, the move is mostly about bandwidth, according to Alisha Martin, a spokeswoman for Comcast.

"Moving our second tier of analog channels to exclusive digital delivery will free up a tremendous amount of bandwidth on our network to be able to offer more HD, faster Internet, more On-Demand — all of these things our customers are asking for," she said.

"One analog channel actually consumes the same amount of bandwidth as 10 digital channels or three HD channels, so you can imagine how much bandwidth we'll be able to free up by moving these channels," Martin said. "This move will allow us to use our network more efficiently; it will essentially triple the amount of space on our network. … Look at the world, and it's really going digital."

University of Maryland media economist Douglas Gomery accepts Comcast's explanation — as far as it goes. As a Comcast customer, he just went through the upgrade in Montgomery County, and he has no major complaints — for the moment anyway. But he says there is likely to be more to the upgrade than Comcast is telling its customers right now — and that's not such good news.

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