the Americans in vaded Iraq in March 2003, my wife and I became
so sickened by the blood and lies on television that we decided
to kill the messenger. I called the local cable monopoly,
Comcast Corp., and had the TV signal disconnected, keeping
the broadband Internet connection—thinking to save a few bucks
in the bargain.
Nope. The next bill was the same. Turns out that my rate was
based on bundling television and broadband. We were to be
penalized for unhooking the government propaganda network.
Enraged, I had Comcast reconnect the TV signal. We put the
beastly machine in a closet and have not watched it since.
I recently became re-enraged by Comcast, when it banned all
FM radio from its cable pipe, including KPFA and National
Public Radio—stations that run programming somewhat critical
of Corporate America. We don’t have enough room on our teeny
tiny broadband for FM radio, Comcast claimed, as it made way
for more Clear Channel drivel.
I wanted to register a complaint, but where to go? Whereas
cable TV and telephone are semiregulated, cable modem Internet
is not regulated by anybody—not the local government,
not the California Public Utilities Commission, not the Federal
Communications Commission. Despite the fact that broadband
uses the same cables that television and telephone electrons
travel, Web flow is not considered to be an “intrastate telecommunications
service,” but an “interstate information service.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering whether broadband
should be regulated. Today, however, Comcast, which grossed
$20 billion last year, can jack up its Internet fees at will,
deliver its trademark poor quality service and charge a premium
for slightly upgrading the sputtering technology.
It is slicing up the cable market with erstwhile competitors—such
as Time Warner, Disney, Microsoft, Sprint and Liberty Media
International—without eliciting a single antitrust fart out
of the Bushies. Market concentration, as usual, is proving
fatal to the notion that “free enterprise” promotes technological
According to the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs,
the broadband service provided to most U.S. homes is “among
the slowest, most expensive and least reliable in the developed
world.” Internet expert Thomas Bleha reports that “nearly
all Japanese have access to high-speed broadband with an average
connection speed 16 times faster than in the United States—for
only about $22 a month.” In Japan, Internet connections can
whiz along at 40 megabytes per second. Much of the United
States slugs along at 1.5 megs per second. In the North Bay,
Comcast recently upgraded residential customers to 4 megs.
But if you want 6 megs—which in much of Asia is molasses—you
have to fork over another $10 per month to the cable monopoly.
There are reasons why Comcast, the largest cable provider
in America, appears to be deliberately retarding the progress.
Bleha comments: “Cheap, high-speed broadband would lead to
widespread use of Internet telephones and thus threaten the
phone companies’ lucrative voice-telephone business.” Comcast
provides 1.2 million customers with relatively expensive cable
Bleha continues, “And more inexpensive broadband would multiply
outside video and movie offerings and endanger the cable companies’
profitability.” In the North Bay, potential high-speed Internet-delivery
competitors are excluded from Comcast’s unregulated cable
Commenting on the Foreign Affairs article, a spokesperson
for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association,
an industry trade group based in Washington, D.C., said that
Asian countries are more advanced than the United States because
“their population is very heavily concentrated in urban areas,
and broadband development is subsidized by the government.”
Of course, neither Santa Rosa nor San Francisco are fully
connected to broadband, so that first argument is fatuous.
As for the government subsidy, according to Comcast’s 2004
annual report, the federal government allowed Comcast’s $50.6
billion acquisition of AT&T in 2002 to “be structured
as a tax-free transaction to Comcast Holdings and AT&T.”
That sounds like government subsidy to me. Not to mention
that zero regulation is a form of subsidy, in that profit-dripping
rates are set by cartels without government oversight.
CPUC commissioner Geoffrey Brown told me there are anticonsumer
trends in cable Internet: gradual consolidation with fewer
players; dismantling of state authority and preemption of
price regulation; elimination of customer-protection rules.
Brown sees that the telecommunications giants, like SBC Communications,
and the cable guys, like Comcast, are struggling to combine
traditional telecommunications, like telephony, with Internet
protocol as a way to escape all regulation.
Byrne is an independent journalist and columnist for the North
Bay Bohemian where this column first appeared.