What McLuhan might have said about the municipal broadband bill

By Tom Baxter

“The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan wrote five decades ago. There could be no better proof of the lasting relevance of that observation than the way I watched the debate on Georgia’s municipal broadband bill last Thursday night.

I’ve spent countless hours watching legislative debates on the hall monitors at this capitol and others across the South, and countless more watching archived footage on my desktop. But when I picked up a hand-me-down, first-generation iPad to watch this debate at home, it had the force of a revelation. The clarity of the live-streamed images on that device was so much better than what I was accustomed to, that when Rep. Don Parsons of Marietta began calling out by name the legislators who’d spoken against the measure, you could see that his hands were trembling, ever so slightly.

“We become what we behold,” McLuhan, who accurately described the internet 30 years before it came to pass, also wrote. “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” The lesson of that live-streamed debate is that one more pixel’s worth of clarity, one more megabyte of speed, can make all the difference in our perception. In this age there’s no such thing as sharp enough, no such thing as fast enough. And at bottom, that’s what this debate was all about. (You can watch the entire debate here, on the video marked GA House Day 30 PM3, beginning at the 19-minute mark. The resolution won’t be as good, but you’ll hear the desperation in Parsons’ voice.)

The likely reason Parsons was nervous was that he already knew the bill he co-sponsored, which would have prohibited a local government from introducing broadband service into an area if even one customer in an entire census tract had service from a private provider of 3 megabytes a second or faster, was going down in flames. The measure failed, 94-70. Significantly, the vote didn’t break down evenly on either party or racial lines. Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, the Democratic dean of the House, voted for it; Rep. Ed Setzler of Acworth, the Republican chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, voted against it. Most rank-and-file Democrats opposed it, but the most crucial portion of the opposition were the small-town Republicans, like Rep. Tom McCall of Elberton and Rep. Jay Powell of Camilla, who saw the bill as directly against the interests of their communities.

And for good reason. Like hypocrites singing loudly in church, supporters of this measure wrapped themselves in the raiment of private enterprise and free market philosophy, casting themselves as protecting broadband providers from unfair competition from municipalities wasting their taxpayers’ money. (See the remarkably belligerent speech by Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs, beginning at the one-hour 31-minute mark on the video archive.)

In fact, the bill would have relegated much of rural Georgia to the status of a digital plantation, only to be cultivated when the proprietors were good and ready to do so. For all the high-flown talk about private enterprise, a Georgia town saddled with a slow broadband connection has as much chance of competing in the new economy as a student from a failing school has of getting into Harvard. Meanwhile, as we wrote recently, Chattanooga’s municipal broadband system is roaring along at a speed of a gigabyte a second.

“Why is it so easy to acquire the solutions of past problems and so difficult to solve current ones?” McLuhan asked. The argument for this bill was the diametrical opposite of the argument for charter schools and private school vouchers, even though some of the same people support both.

Regarding schools, the argument is that competition is categorically good, and therefore it makes sense to allow public money to go to private schools, and charter schools to be founded in areas already served by public schools. Some charter schools fail, proponents acknowledge, but ultimately the competitive environment they foster will improve the entire educational system. Ehrhart has been particular active in this area, authoring the original private school tax credit bill, and another bill expanding the program this year despite a complaint from the Southern Educational Foundation that the program was being widely abused, essentially allowing parents to get a tax break for their own children’s private school tuition.

The argument against letting municipalities set up their own broadband systems is that competition will hurt private internet providers. Fervent opponents of the “nanny state,” supporters of such legislation nevertheless argue that unwise municipalities need to be saved from their own bad decisions.

Isn’t that what voters were supposed to be for? It’s not really fear of failure, but greed, that drives the opposition to competition from the public sector. “When a thing is current, it creates currency,” McLuhan said.

Again and again, supporters of the bill returned to the metaphor of a local government trying to run its own hamburger stand in competition with McDonalds, while opponents repeatedly used the metaphor of a digital highway as an essential part of the infrastructure of tomorrow. If you have any doubt which of these metaphors is more useful to a discussion of the internet, try slapping ketchup and mustard on an app.

Why belabor these points, if the bill has already been soundly defeated? Because like the Sith Lords of the Star Wars movies, bills like this never show up alone. It was a template bill of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which receives significant support from telcom companies, among other corporate sponsors. Similar bills have been introduced in states across the country and have passed in several, including North and South Carolina.

A similar bill was introduced in Georgia last year, and will probably be back next year. It’s very unlikely, but not inconceivable, that it could even reappear, Sith-like, under another number in this year’s session. The interests pushing this bill – it’s accurate to say that all the bills limiting municipal broadband initiatives are essentially the same bill – have the resources to keep chipping away until they succeed, and willing accomplices in state capitols across the country.

Fumbling over their spoon-fed factoids (see particularly the last remarks by the principal sponsor, Rep. Mark Hamilton of Cumming), the proponents of this monopolistic and backward-looking legislation might seem like wheezing dinosaurs. But unless another meteor hits them, the dinosaurs will be back.

Or, as McLuhan said, “Politics offers yesterday’s answers to today’s questions.”

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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