Progressives’ Paradox — Senate Commerce Committee Votes Up on LPFM, Down on Net Neutrality

Oh, those party lines. Senate Commerce Committee Republicans showed themselves to be 92% against ensuring internet freedom, with 11 out of 12 voting against a net neutrality amendment to the big telecom bill (S.2686) today. That was a much narrower loss than a similar amendment suffered in the House, due to the fact that all Committee Democrats in the Senate supported net neutrality.

On the brighter side, the Committee also voted in favor of Sen. McCain’s LPFM amendment that would reverse the 2000 evisceration of low-power radio by restoring the FCC’s original spacing requirements. There was bipartisan support on this one, with 14 votes for, and 7 against.

So now the paradox facing the media reform movement is that although it would restore LPFM, the overall Senate telecomm bill is a near-wholesale giveaway to the big telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon that also screws local communities and municipalities by taking away their ability to negotiate for better public service. One arm of community media–public access TV–is threatened with extinction, while the other–LPFM–gets a boost. Loaves to the telecomm industry, crumbs to the public.

On Sunday I attended a community radio caucus at the AMC organized by Prometheus Radio Project where this exact situation was discussed. The advice from Prometheus’ Hannah Sassaman was to urge one’s senator to support LPFM, but also to support public access. The underlying logic is that even if the over telecomm bill fails, LPFM amendment and all, the political life of the overall LPFM cause will be extended as a result of the amendment’s passage in the first place.

Will the same logic apply to net neutrality? Are media reformers willing to trade away the future of public access in order to get internet freedom guarantees?

The party-line vote at the Commerce Committee would seem to indicate that there’s strong support amongst Senate Democrats for internet freedom–more than in the House–but not necessarily enough across the aisle to pass amendment. Though, one Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Orgeon, is willing to use his Senate privilege to put a hold on the telecomm bill if it fails to contain net neutrality provisions.

Also, just yesterday, Commerce Chair Ted Stevens told Reuters that he doesn’t yet have lined up the 60 votes necessary to end debate and force a vote on the Senate floor. So Senate Democrats also have a viable opportunity to filibuster and derail the whole telecom bill.

Network neutrality very well may be the issue that saves or kills the Senate telecom bill. Accepting net neutrality may be the compromise the big telcos have to accept in order to get all the other valuable gimmies — though I seriously doubt they’ll be willing to budge, even if some Republicans do.

The the question remains: if Senate Republicans compromise and give in on network neutrality, will media reformers be willing to accept that in exchange for selling out the future of public access TV? My guess is that they will, and wouldn’t blame them. The bigger picture is the internet, you don’t need any special genius to see that.

But in the biggest picture, I think we’d all be better off if the national franchise doesn’t pass in the first place. Network neutrality may still have a good shot on its own, and the situation is just a little less dire if the likes of AT&T aren’t given free reign to take over the nation’s TVs.


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