Comcast Injects 9/11 Into Broadband Mapping Debate. Really.
Comcast Injects 9/11 Into Broadband Mapping Debate. Really.
Comcast Injects 9/11 Into Broadband Mapping Debate. Really.

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    A Maryland lobbyist for Comcast yesterday added a new chapter to the company's recent illustrious history of corporate diplomacy by invoking the Giuliani defense into a discussion of broadband deployment.

    The Comcast tab so far: Comcast denied throttling and then admitted BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer applications and then got caught. Comcast denied, and then admitted, stuffing the room at the Federal Communications Commission's Feb. 25 hearing on network management with paid seat-holders who stayed for the hearing while legitimately interested observers were kept out.

    And now, there is a new episode in absurdity, albeit on a slightly lesser scale. In March 4 testimony to the Economic Matters Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates whether broadband companies should disclose to consumers where their services are deployed and where they aren't, Comcast lobbyist Sean M. Looney invoked the Giuliani defense: consumers can't be given information about broadband in their neighborhoods because of… 9/11. Yes, in yet another misuse of that tragic occurrence, Comcast invoked that same all-purpose shield perpetually invoked by former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in his presidential campaign.

    Here's the background. The committee was hearing testimony on some misguided legislation that would lay the groundwork for a Connect Kentucky affiliate to come into Maryland. In theory, this group would collect information on broadband, map the results and create community teams to try to gin up demand.

    Given the history of Connect Kentucky, this bill is a bad idea for any number of reasons, as PK testified. Some of our objections are based on the specifics of the bill. The companies collecting the data could keep it private and there would be no check on the reliability of the data. Some of our objections were based on the history of Connect Kentucky, including that CK lobbied for telephone company legislation.

    Then there is the cost issue. The state estimated it would cost $3.4 million to get the program going in fiscal year 2009.

    None of that seemed to concern either the bill's sponsor, Del. Tom Hucker (D) or the two panels of supporters — one group from the Communications Workers of America (CWA), who accompanied Hucker to the witness table, or the panel of industry witnesses who followed.

    That panel was led by Sean M. Looney, Comcast's lobbyist in Annapolis, and included representatives from Verizon, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the Maryland Tech Council. But Looney, standing as spoke, controlled the discussion as he not only defended the bill up for discussion but also criticized another bill, HB 987. That bill, sponsored by Del. Herman L. Taylor Jr., (D) would require broadband providers to report their deployments to the Public Service Commission (PSC), which would then put the information online for all to see. It could be a great boon to consumers, even to competitors, by requiring everyone to report the same information.

    The Taylor bill would require the reporting of broadband services, generously described as anything from basic DSL (768 kbps) and over. Here are the specific requirements:

    (1) identify where the broadband provider provides broadband service to customers in the broadband provider's service territory, broken down by zip code plus 4;

    (2) state the percentage of households in broadband provider's service territory, broken down by zip code plus 4, that are offered broadband service by the provider and the percentage of households that subscribe to the provider's broadband service;

    (3) state the upload and download data transmission speeds that are available to customers in the broadband provider's service territory, broken down by zip code plus 4;

    (4) state the average price per megabyte of download and upload data transmission speeds in the broadband provider's service territory, broken down by zip code plus 4; and

    (5) report new services and upgrades to existing broadband services in the broadband provider's service territory, broken down by zip code plus 4.

    The bill would also require the PSC to publish each report on the commission's website.

    Looney would hear none of it. His group wants to maintain confidentiality without accountability, while spending millions in state money as a marketing tool for the cable and telephone companies.

    It was while defending the need for protecting proprietary information that Looney dropped the G-bomb, telling the Committee that “9/11 wasn't that long ago. We don't want to make it easier for them to take out the network.” He added that the legislation requiring fuller disclosure could point to where vital public safety resources were, particularly in the wireless network.

    Looking at the simple, consumer-friendly requirements of the bill, it's obvious that there are no security threats from the disclosure of broadband. The only threats contained in it are to the cozy duopoly that the cable and telephone company have. Cable doesn't want people to know how slow their network really is. The telephone company doesn't want people to find out its priorities for where new services are being installed.

    The bill does not place one company in danger of losing a competitive edge over another through the disclosure of information they want to claim as proprietary. Because all companies have to report the same information, no one company will have an advantage. The bill applies to any company offering at least the minimal form of high-speed Internet (broadband) service — cable, telephone, wireless — the technology doesn't matter.

    In the realpolitik world of Annapolis, however, it doesn't matter if an industry's arguments are as divorced from reality as the Looney argument is. The fact is that with every industry in the state, and their sock puppets, opposed to the bill, and no Internet companies and very few public interest groups of a mind to fight for it, the bill's future is bleak, even without the mythical specter of 9/11 hanging over it.

    All is not lost. At least the debate gave Comcast a chance to burnish its legacy by the initial mention of 9/11 into a broadband policy debate.