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Academic Forum

A Look at the “Academic
Broadband Forum”

This page reviews the Academic Broadband Forum sponsored by BellSouth and Cox Communications and warns that the presenters display none of the disinterested objectivity implied by the label "Academic Forum."

The Academic Broadband Forum sponsored by BellSouth and Cox is a study in the misappropriation of the label "Academic." Are these men academics? Well, they are or have been. Is the Forum an academic one? No, by no means.

Following a pattern established in this community when Cox distributed two advertising "polls" which they calmly misrepresented as being honest polls intended to gauge public sentiment, Cox and BellSouth called this event an "academic forum, a misleading appropriation of the value of the real thing.

Real academic forums strive for objectivity and open discussion between opposing views. They make a determined effort to include representatives of all the credible viewpoints and make special efforts to include those whose basic assumptions and ways of understanding the problem are different. The point of such honest forums is to make explicit all points of view and, secondarily, to provide some criticism of each from the viewpoint of its opponents. They are usually (but not always) polite but are never expected to reach unanimous opinions; that's just not the point. One judges the success of real academic forums by how many different points of view were convincingly offered—by how much is learned.

The BellSouth / Cox "Academic Broadband Forum" meets none of these criteria. All of the participants have written papers in opposition to municipal ownership of telecommunications and their workplaces are funded in significant part by the industries which their "research," not surprisingly, favors. There is, sadly, a whole class of so-called academics which parallels and to some extent overlaps the class of "paid expert witness" that is so visible in modern legal battles. Industries know who they are and they appear to speak with (dubious) authority wherever their corporate sponsors need someone to state corporate positions as objective, scientific fact. A wise lawyer facing such "facts" simply points to the witnesses' dependence on the industries for a livelihood and the virtual certainty that they prejudged the current case before they heard anything about its particulars.

The same tactic is appropriate here. These experts are clearly "witnesses for the defense" of the industries that BellSouth and Cox represent.

Consider: David Tuereck of the Beacon Hill Institute will no doubt present some permutation of the latest municipal broadband "study" he and his Institute were commissioned to do, this one on the Concord, Massachusetts plan to offer municipal cable and internet. That study was commissioned by the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association Inc., which is made up of 14 cable providers from all over New England, including Comcast, which provided cable and internet service to Concord. That study, not surprisingly, found that there was a "60 percent" chance that the plan would lose money—between $362,000 and $2 million. The people of Concord didn't find such "studies" or the campaign of deceptive polling and advertising of which it was a part credible, and about 95 percent of them voted for the town's proposal. (See: Voters give town an OK for cable in the Concord Herald.)

Consider: John Rizzuto, professor at the University of Denver, is also a senior fellow at The Cable Center's Magness Institute where Cox V. P. Claus Kroeger sits on the board of directors. Mr. Kroeger received his Master's degree from the University of Denver and was on hand in 2001 when Cox pledged two million dollars toward establishing a chair at the department of communications in the city that houses the Cable Center. Rizzuto was hired to study the Sweetwater, Wyoming plan by Sweetwater Cable TV. You will not be surprised to find that he believed it was unworkable.

Consider: Thomas Lenard of the Progress and Freedom Foundation. That Foundation is funded in part by large telecommunications companies, including BellSouth and The National Cable & Telecommunications Association. It is known as one of the more right-wing think tanks in Washington, often espousing, as their website puts it, "individual sovereignty." Lenard's writings in both the areas of electricity and telecommunications have been consistently hostile to the idea of municipal or utility ownership. His most recent telecommunications missive was to testify before Congress on behalf of the idea that consumers benefited by cable bundling plans (that is, plans which require a consumer to buy a number of premium channels in order to get one, such as HBO or ESPN). There is currently before Congress a plan to require "a la carte" pricing, a system which would require cable companies to unbundle HBO and sell it separately. Lenard is against it. Apparently that individual sovereignty thing only goes so far—and certainly not so far as to interfere with the sovereignty of corporations which pay the bills.