A telecommunications and media revolution is taking place. Broadband technologies, which provide lightning-fast connections to the Internet, are quickly replacing the soon-to-be-antiquated system of dial-up access. In a few years, whenever we use our TVs, personal computers, cell phones, and other digital devices, it is likely that we will be communicating through a form of broadband.
Imagine a flood of multimedia content - messages and music, images and video - flowing in both directions and significantly expanding the range of media options we have today. It practically boggles the mind.
Or at least it should. But the danger is that the digital future of the United States will turn out to be more a reflection of our media past than a genuine unleashing of broadband's full power. (Although broadband today is defined rather modestly by the Federal Communications Commission as service in excess of 200 kilobits per second, roughly four times the speed of dial-up, it will soon operate at much higher speeds.)
We might end up with the illusion of more programming choices, but without taking advantage of the capacity of new media to meet society's needs through interactive services and applications. That is likely unless we approach broadband as something more than simply the latest technological breakthrough - part of the faster-smaller-cheaper triumvirate of irresistible new gadgetry.
Many believe that if we simply allow technical innovation and the commercial market to evolve, we will be assured of a positive outcome. After all, hasn't the Internet, seemingly on its own, blossomed into a service that now features access to millions of Web sites, unlimited downloads, and instantaneous access to friends and associates around the world?
However, such "technological determinism" - the notion that technology will eventually yield answers to all of our problems - doesn't guarantee us the kind of media system that will truly enrich our democratic culture. Compared with the original phone-line-based Internet, broadband represents a new "genetic" strain, one that can make significant positive contributions to a community in far-reaching ways.
The key institutions of civil society - for example, schools and libraries, community groups, and cultural organizations - might be linked by high-speed networks that will vastly expand their reach into the community. The possibilities for new local and national services are only as limited as our imagination. For those frustrated with commercial-TV news, there could be new independent news channels delivering in-depth reporting on issues affecting the neighborhoods of Philadelphia and its suburbs. Online video-conferencing might offer homework help, literacy training or election forums. Entrepreneurs, frustrated with today's sound-alike commercial radio, could launch music channels for a diverse city's listeners.
But for any of this to happen, the public will have to make concrete decisions to guide how and whom this new media system will serve.
Unfortunately, such decisions are mostly being made by a handful of insiders, including big telephone and cable companies and a few policy-makers. Not surprisingly, the "vision" that executives and officials have seized upon is one of encouraging private investment in order to accelerate the spread of broadband. With the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it has become official U.S. policy to ensure that everyone in the country will be able to travel on broadband pathways. In attempting to implement this policy, the FCC has recently crafted rules that allow cable and phone giants to have even greater control over how their broadband networks serve consumers and competitors, including elimination of any obligation for them to open their wires to competing Internet service providers. The theory is that these companies will be more willing to make the massive investments necessary to get us hooked up if they are granted preferential treatment in the marketplace.
Imagine being asked in 1934, at the dawn of broadcasting, how you and your family would want to be served by radio and, later, television. The public wasn't consulted then, and Congress passed the 1934 Communications Act, which largely determined our "analog destiny" of commercially driven radio and TV. Now we have a chance, especially at the local level, to determine our "digital destiny."
What's required first is an assessment of how broadband is being delivered to the neighborhoods of Philadelphia and the surrounding towns and cities. Is everyone scheduled to receive the service, and when? How much capacity will it have? What's being planned by such companies as Comcast in the form of applications and other content services? What will consumers, schools and local government have to pay to be hooked up to the 21st century? What we will actually require from broadband five to 10 years from now?
It will be particularly critical to identify what is missing now and envision new opportunities in the future. Can we use broadband to keep better informed about local and state public affairs, encouraging greater voter participation? Can museums expand their reach to the public? How can local content as a way of stimulating economic growth and diversity of expression best be promoted?
A few communities, recognizing the limitations of the marketplace in meeting our communications needs, have decided to erect broadband networks of their own; Kutztown has www.hometownu.com. A new project called Camden Resources (www.camdenresources.org) has a searchable "information commons" that lists hundreds of community services. West Philadelphia Data and Information Resources (westphillydata.library.upenn.edu) provides a Web-based "channel for information sharing, community building and economic development within the West Philadelphia area."
If left unchecked, broadband will likely evolve into a system that features more advertising, infomercials, multimedia spam, and the usual Hollywood and TV fare. After all, the biggest media conglomerates and advertisers will control the wires and much of the content.
It's important to recall the words of Edward R. Murrow in his assessment of TV in 1958: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, and, yes, it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is nothing but wires and lights in a box." The power of TV, a one-way medium, pales beside the two-way interactivity that the broadband revolution will make possible. But the question remains: Have we learned enough to heed Murrow's words at the dawn of this new era of digital media?
Jeffrey Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington. Contact Jeffrey Chester at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the Center for Digital Democracy, go to www.democraticmedia.org.
Copyright 2003 Knight-Ridder