When corporations fight proxy wars using governments
It is always depressing to see a political battle erupt where you know, no matter who wins, the average citizen will be screwed. One such slow motion train wreck is taking place in Massachusetts as we speak. I became aware of it when one of the groups put an ad on TV that was so offensively anti-consumer that I knew some bait and switch had to be taking place. What I found was quite an interesting battle.
In Massachusetts, most roads are owned and operated by local governments. Among the many decisions these owners have to make are ones concerned with services run under or over these roads. One set of services are television cables. Generally, and perhaps universally, these towns select a single cable provider and give them a monopoly on television service, allow them to run lines along the roads, and grant them exclusive access to the market composed of the town’s residents.
The towns also made similar arrangements with telephone providers.
These monopolies are starting to break down due to technical advances. A thin fiber-optic line can carry the same amount of data that a thick cable would be used for 20 years ago. The technologies have converged to the point that the cable infrastructure can provide telephone service, and the telephone infrastructure can provide television service.
The two types of companies went from indifference to each other to competing with each other. Since they are used to having governments kneecap competition, they each tried to use local governments against their competitors. In the case of my home town, Comcast very effectively lobbied town authorities to prohibit Verizon from offering television, even though the infrastructure was in place. Apparently Verizon got tired of this, and decided that they would have an advantage if these legislative battles were fought in the statehouse rather than in town council meetings. And so, they drafted this law:
The law basically shifts control of the monopolies (which they call franchises) to the state-house. Once the state approves of a monopoly, the towns must make their roads available for whatever cabling is required.
The New England Cable & Telecommunications Association, which appears to me to be dominated by Comcast, didn’t like this, and they set up a competing organization: Keep IT Local MA which tries to look non corporationy by only listing members of local governments as members. They were the ones who produced the execrable ad.
I spent an hour or so noodling around the two astroturf sites, and noticed some really amusing parallels:
1) Neither site provides a link to the legislation.
2) Neither site is actually providing a forum for the citizenry to actually communicate with each other.
In other words both groups have utter contempt for us citizens. They want to treat us like mushrooms. They also seem to have studied the same textbook.
While I am sympathetic to Verizon because of the disgusting way in which local towns governments have screwed the citizenry by trying to keep them out, in the end, I think the NECTA has the stronger case. If one accepts that towns must “own” the roads then the towns should control who or what travels on them. But given the way that town councils mismanage the road system and abuse their monopolies, I don’t for a minute think they are fighting this battle on principle. They are fighting Verizon merely because they wish to keep their little empires, either because of the graft they collect or the psychic pleasure they derive from pushing their neighbors around. It’s just a shame that there is no actual grass-roots group fighting to end government control of telecommunications in the first place.