The summer of 2006 is shaping up to be a decisive moment in the history of U.S. communications policy. Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are considering measures that would radically transform the way American's access the Internet.

Apart from the prospect of tiered Internet access, the proposed legislation fails to ensure universal access to broadband networks, which amounts to "virtual red-lining" of low-income and rural areas.

These same measures would reduce or eliminate the authority local communities have in negotiating cable television franchise fees. This legislation threatens the funding and future viability of public, education and government (PEG) channels.

Chances are you won't read much about this in the New York Times. Or hear it on National Public Radio, for that matter. Let alone see a report on CNN, NBC or your local television news. In fact, if you get your news and information from corporate media sources — or an increasingly corporatized public broadcasting service — the only time you'd learn about fundamental changes in the nation's communication policy is when it's framed as a business story.

Of course, the lack of substantive reporting on communication policy making is nothing new. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 received scant media attention despite the fact that it was the first major overhaul of the nation's communication policy in over 50 years.

Nor is there anything unusual about the massive lobbying effort underway in Washington these days. The telephone companies have been keeping busy, playing fast and loose with the facts and spending money hand over fist in an effort to win congressional support for legislation that favors the telecommunications industries.


This summer, however, it's not business as usual. The struggle to preserve "net neutrality" — the principle that prohibits Internet service providers from discriminatory practices that could affect access to and use of Internet content — has galvanized constituents from across the political spectrum.

The Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association have joined forces with and Common Cause, among dozens of other organizations, to defend net neutrality.

Likewise, a coalition of consumer groups, media producers and public access television supporters have voiced their opposition to measures that would create a National Video Franchising authority, thereby eliminating local control over lucrative cable television and telephone franchise agreements.

Significantly, this is not the first time people from across the political spectrum have voiced their opposition to corporate media power. In what media scholar Robert McChesney aptly described as "the uprising of 2003," a broad-based coalition put the FCC on notice during its biennial review of media ownership rules.

In an unprecedented demonstration of concern over media consolidation, thousands of so-called "ordinary" Americans demanded the FCC hold public hearings to discuss questions of media ownership and control. The public outcry for more accountable communication policy making took the media industry, Congress and federal regulators completely off guard.


If the past few weeks are any indication, the stage is set for another face off between corporate media power and defenders of the public interest.

On May 24, supporters of public access television and "net neutrality" organized a National Day of Out(r)age in opposition to the Communication Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (HR5252), a disingenuously named piece of legislation if ever there was one.

Over the next few weeks, the COPE Act, as it has come to be known, was the subject of intense lobbying efforts at the grassroots, along Washington's K Street, and in congressional offices. Groups such as Consumers Union and Free Press launched anti-COPE petitions that garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Meanwhile, according to published reports in the San Jose Mercury News, the telecommunication lobby was spending nearly $1 million a day to persuade house members to support COPE.

Talk about money well spent. On June 8, the COPE Act was passed by a vote of 321-101 in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The action now moves to the Senate, where a companion bill (S. 2686) is scheduled for a vote on June 22.

While the Communications, Consumers' Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006 is not nearly as draconian as the COPE Act, the issue of net neutrality remains a subject of fierce debate, as does the prospect for national video franchising.

There's something in the air this summer. Media reform is quickly gaining political traction. And who knows? Come the November elections, communication policy just might become a major campaign issue.

Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at