In Los Angeles, the ideal cable franchise would be all-digital as soon as 2006, with enough bandwidth set aside for a variety of new public-spirited video-on-demand services, premium high-speed Internet access — at varying speeds — for all who want it and local-news programming everywhere.
That's the blueprint a city council committee received last week from the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California.
An all-digital conversion would free up 450 Megahertz of bandwidth that's now carrying analog signals. That capacity could be used for such forward-looking applications as on-demand public, educational and government programming, Annenberg visiting professor Jonathan Taplin said.
The cable platform should also be open to allow accessibility to all voices in the community, he added. "If you get to an all-digital system, you have bandwidth to burn," he told city officials at USC on March 4.
Los Angeles is in informal talks with operators for new franchises in all 14 cable areas.
It seeks new agreements with Adelphia Communications, Comcast Corp., Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications Inc.
The city completed a needed assessment in December, but then its Information Technology and General Services committee approached the Annenberg School for suggestions that go beyond the status quo, Taplin said.
(Taplin has a second job: he's also CEO of Intertainer Inc., the failed Internet movie-downloading service now in litigation with movie studios over competing services.)
The Annenberg School, in conjunction with the Center for Digital Democracy, wants city officials to create refranchising terms that will be a model for the broadband era.
"This will be a critical negotiation that the whole country is going to watch," Taplin said.
City Councilman Jack Weiss, chairman of the committee, said it makes sense to take a leadership role on the use of broadband plant, as content creators are such an important part of the business makeup of Los Angeles.
Not testifying at the hearing: the cable operators themselves.
Panel organizer Sean Treglia of the Annenberg School blamed "faulty communication" on his part with local cable executives, which left them with little time to prepare presentations.
Operator officials were present, though.
Time Warner Cable's Deane Leavenworth, representing the Los Angeles Cable Operators Association, said the council showed good judgment by looking at refranchising issues thoroughly.
But the March 4 presentations lacked discussion on how much it would cost the city and consumers to implement a "dream digital" agreement. The suggestions also did not recognize the effects such added costs would have on cable operators in an increasingly competitive environment, he added.
Councilman Bernard Parks indicated after the meeting that the city council is taking a leadership role on refranchising, including seeking input from USC. The council will have to reconcile earlier recommendations with the university recommendations — including an earlier desire to have the city maintain an analog platform for as long as possible.
Some of the speakers at the panel debated whether or not traditional PEG channels should be preserved or slotted for future VOD bandwidth.
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, also urged regulators to seek guarantees that access to cable's Internet-protocol platform would be nondiscriminatory. For example, content providers not affiliated with the cable operator should be able to upload content to customers that have digital video recorders, he said.
A representative of the Communications Workers of America —a frequent participant in matters that involve Comcast Corp. — urged council members to make sure funding is provided for periodic technical audits and for local job protection.
"Negotiate hard and be as litigious as Comcast if necessary," CWA director of research George Kohl urged the panel.