PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KS — This is a pivotal time for telecommunications policy. The proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger gets a Senate hearing next week, even as these cable behemoths face some nascent competition from Google Fiber in Kansas City and other municipal-fiber networks. The FCC recently announced that it would be taking a critical look at a group of state laws backed by the cable lobby that attempt to block such networks.
One of the most outspoken advocates in the fight for community fiber networks is Susan Crawford, Harvard Law School’s John A. Reilly Visiting Professor in Intellectual Property, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and a former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation policy. Crawford, who is also a contributor to Bloomberg View and Wired, is passionate about the future of journalism, and she argues that journalism associations should embrace municipal-fiber networks as a means to establish a funding stream for the revival of local, community-spirited reporting. “It’s an exciting time to be a journalist,” she says—but, she warns, local news may be a dying commodity unless journalists demand “a seat at the table” as communities look to establish fiber networks.
Last week, Crawford spoke to CJR about the promise of Google Fiber and other municipal networks, the dangers of media consolidation, and the stakes for the future of journalism in the battle over telecommunications infrastructure.
You’ve proposed that journalism schools should support municipal fiber networks in their communities. How do you see such networks benefiting journalists and their work?
The notion is that as cities make the important decision to ensure that their citizens have reasonably priced fiber access, part of that decision has to be ensuring that local journalism outlets—and libraries and other sources of important civic informational goods—are funded and supported and connected.
I went to Stockholm over Christmas break… There are four or five competitors providing fiber directly to consumers and businesses in Stockholm. They’ve got 100 percent coverage for businesses and more than 90 percent coverage for residents at very low prices. So I’m paying here in New York four times as much as someone in Stockholm pays, for a connection that’s 17 times worse. And it appears to me that we need to make that same upgrade in America. And it needs to happen at the city level because federal policy is completely stuck at this point.
And the city managers and mayors need to be thinking about the future of journalism and funding for it at the same time they make that upgrade.
Some portion of the reasonable bills that people pay for their internet access should go to funding journalism in every town in America. And there can be intermediaries in the form of journalism schools who make sure that funding is distributed justly. In a wise society, that’s what would happen.
Do you see this as something that not only journalism schools but journalism associations, newspaper associations, and the journalism community in general could be advocating for?
Yes, this isn’t limited to journalism schools. The trade associations or other institutions that already exist in the journalism world should be active in pushing mayors to make this upgrade, and making sure that they have a seat at the table when mayors are considering how these funding streams are going to be worked out from the use of this basic infrastructure.