Sunday, August 5, 2012

Can They Hear You At City Hall? Communication Technology for Civic Engagement

Part one of a four-part series

The connected city—it’s a vision with buzzy new tools like Wifi and iPhones leveraged for civic engagement.  Yet thinking about the role of communication technology in urban planning should go deeper than a downloadable app.  It is time to recognize these communications technologies as the infrastructure they really are, with their potential to spur innovation, business, and jobs.  These technologies are not a panacea--there is no new tool that will solve long standing social problems, but they do have the power to radically reshape communities if access to these tools is rethought.  When Aristotle asserts that man is a political animal, what he fundamentally means is that human beings cannot help but connect and communicate, and it is these interactions that give rise to the communities in which we live.  It is time to recognize the role that the network can and will play in creating a social fabric that can sustain us.  

Urban planners have long recognized the ways in which the built environment can create a space for people and activity.  Store fronts and shopping districts can be optimized for commerce, sidewalks can be built to speed along walkers or encourage someone to linger.   Christopher Alexander recognized the ability of built space to bring people into contact with one another, and the value to society of “…the people around us, and the most common ways we have of meeting them, or being with them.” The ability of infrastructure in the form of buildings to shape these interactions and provide a space for interaction served as a form of “pattern language.”
Communication technologies represent a new type of pattern, with the ability to order and sustain our lives in important ways, but one that planners haven’t yet addressed in an integral way.  Just like space can support patterns of action, so can technology.  All of this suggests that we need to more closely examine the ways in which communication technologies can structure the physical as well as the communication space of the modern city.   The public sphere is no longer limited to its physical space.
For this reason, there needs to be more cross pollination between urban planning and communication studies.  Just as smart growth proponents have recognized the civic importance of connecting people to community assets such as grocery stores, employment, business and medical services closer to home via policy initiatives like complete streets, we need to recognize the other great infrastructure needs that the next generation cities will find equally important.   Communication technology needs to be addressed at the level of municipal and state level planning. 

Some organizations are already doing this.  New America Foundation and Code for America both recognize the importance of civic innovation projects.  Google addresses the demand for communication infrastructure for business and innovation through their Google Fiber project, which attempts to spur the type of network growth that the next generation of applications will require and tired monopolistic providers have failed to supply.  Of course, those same businesses also recognize the need for state and local level consideration of communication technology infrastructure, but rather than address it they have sought to block its development by pushing bills at the state level that block municipal wifi efforts.  Currently, AT&T is pushing SB1161 in California, which makes the legislature and the federal government the sole sources of authority.  The fact is that SB1161 is overly broad, and makes it so that local elected officials can’t have any say regarding provisions of access as part of their investment in local infrastructure.  This is a pattern that clearly needs to change.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Comcast Experiments with Usage Pricing

Looks like Comcast is finally experimenting with usage pricing.  The cable giant has long been criticized for pushing bandwidth caps (from which it conveniently exempted its own content) while not giving users who want more bandwidth the options to pay for their usage.   With the emergence of competitive Over the Top (OTT) Television services in the forms of Netflix and Hulu, the incentive for cable providers with a stake in content to unfairly use their monopolies over broadband and wireless access to target their competition is more than just a theoretical concern.  Uncompetitive behavior like exempting cable owned content, slowing or throttling connections so that rival services don't load properly, and placing bandwidth caps that force consumers to chose between movies and online streaming video game play indicate that ensuring network access remains a primary concern. 

Of course Comcast can just chose to charge outrageous and usurious rates for additional bandwidth, so stay tuned to see if a move the company claims isn't in response to their OTT television rivals isn't actually used to undercut them.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Over the Top Television: Do Cable Alternatives Have a Sporting Chance?

So anyone still unclear as to whether Over the Top Television (OTT) alternatives such as Netflix or Apple TV represent a true competitor to cable need only try to access the NHL playoff games without a cable subscription.  Or March Madness.  Or pretty much any other major sporting event.  In the era of the cable alternative, sports remains one of the major challenges for anyone trying to cut the cord.  There are some OTT work arounds, but for the most part sports content requires some paid access, which is fair and necessary for a sustainable model. 

The  frustration is that those who already have cable subscriptions are finding they still need to pony up for access to certain games outside their home region.  It has long been the case that games were available regionally, but changes in technology and consumer expectations have served to make content more available while undermining the rationale and expectations regarding what should be accessible.  Ironically, as the NHL reaps the benefits of last year's $2 billion, ten year deal with Comcast's NBC Universal to televise every playoff game, many consumers with cable subscriptions still can't access the games they want.

Viewers are also increasing aware of differences between cable companies. Games that are available in the LA market (Sharks v. Blues) with the standard Time Warner cable package are embargoed behind premium sports channels by Charter.  Bundling NHL games with golf and car racing isn't necessarily attractive for those who already feel like they are paying enough. Adding another subscription service to get access to games friends and family in other comparable markets get included with standard packages rankles.

Ultimately, it's simply another example of the barriers facing cable alternatives such as OTT television.  Competition isn't guaranteed a fighting chance.   

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Politics of Space: Creating Community

 As an undergraduate at UCLA studying political theory I was fortunate to have a Professor for whom political theory meant engagement with the community.  He challenged us to consider how political  theory connected to the design and practice of physical space in the tradition of Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and the spatial and cultural organization of daily life.   When Aristotle describes man as a political animal, a declaration that arises out of human interaction and the establishment of society, how people come together to form communities becomes a central concern.  The act of how resources get allocated, how problems are defined and solved, or the nitty gritty of who gets what and why in the words of Laswell not only communicatively constitutes society,  but it does so in a manner where the arrangement of space and place matter.

I've come to realize that way of looking at the world is some what unique.  Many of those who study public discourse, public participation, and democracy overlook the role of physical arrangements.  A sense of community, ease of physical access to community assets, and barriers that get in the way of participation in the process matter.  Public discourse studies may recognize the role of the internet in facilitating online discussions, but affordable access to high speed internet, or the private ownership of online message boards that effectively serve as public spaces, introduce problems that often merit too little discussion.  In discussing regulatory policy, whether a community "owns" the infrastructure for cable, internet, and phone lines, or lends that access to companies for use matters.

The tradition of regulation in the US has long included a consideration of the public good.  Early media regulation utilized a system for granting access to public airwaves that recognized the public good in the form of programming requirements.  Yet we are moving away from the role of the public good toward pure market analysis. The intrinsic value of the public good is beginning to be ignored in favor of instrumental value, to the detriment of public space, public assets, and public participation.

It seems media regulation is one area we can fruitfully expand our notion of political theory to address questions of space and the public sphere. How these assets are used by and in turn shape communities seems a vital component of understanding how online and meet space communities get created, maintained, and undermined.

Encouraging People Friendly Communities

There are some interesting articles on Planetizen today that all grapple with the big challenge of how we as a society create communities people want to live in.

First, ever wondered where the global 1% live?  A current list of cities, as well as a projection for the top ten cities of the future 1% can be found in the Atlantic Monthly.  Most interesting are the reports on what those who can live anywhere want in their community.  Turns out they desire what almost everyone wants from their community: access to good education, safety and security (read stability, which gets a bit challenging in the face of all that inequality), and a rich cultural life. 

Slate has a great series running on the pedestrian, including an interesting critique of the term itself as boring, pejorative, and even alienating.  The language serves to divorce what is a natural element of the community, walking and experiencing the lived environment on a human scale, from itself. 

It's easy to get caught up in segmenting people--talking about the global elite, the city of the suburb, or the pedestrian city.  But the reality is that what we want is pretty universal--we may argue over which strategies are best for achieving those ends, but we have to remain focused on encouraging people friendly communities.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Placing Bets and Making Cents of Convergence in an Era of Digital Distribution

How technology will determine the future of the media industry is an evolving conversation.  A variety of perspectives on the current media environment may offer some clues as to what the future holds, but while everyone is lining up their bets there still isn’t a clear consensus on who will be the winners. One thing is certain, though: success will greatly depend on who will control access to the flow of content.  

For all the talk of digital distribution, Media Shift argues that cable remains a profitable and dominant player, producing billions of dollars in subscription revenue per month.   Early speculation about cord cutting, or replacing subscription cable in favor of alternatives like Netflix, Hulu, or Apple TV, has simply not materialized in substantial numbers.  Instead, analysts have attributed losses in cable subscription rates to the recession:  fewer households mean fewer televisions for which to secure subscriptions.  Consumers are not abandoning the cable subscription model itself, despite price increases, the emergence of new competitors, and no shortage of dire predictions. 

Even personal devices like the iPad, widely speculated to portend changes in the way consumers interact with media, often find their users held within the subscription orbit via authentication, or the practice of verifying a paid subscription in order to access content.  Cable companies continue to hold tremendous power given that cable alternatives are at the mercy of the large media companies in acquiring licenses for programming.   Netflix’s failure to renew their deal with Starz has resulted in both the loss of a significant amount of content and increased pressure on the company.  Several cable providers have even introduced their own rival streaming services.   In response, Netflix has ventured into developing original content, which critics suggest is a potentially expensive and slow enterprise.   Shareholders recognize that access to content, as well as the ill-executed price increases enacted last fall mean the future of Netflix is less certain than previously anticipated.

If they can’t beat them, rumor has it that Netflix may join them: the company is supposedly in talks with cable operators to integrate into the cable model by adding Netflix as a subscription service similar to a premium channel that would appear on the cable bill.  Though critics contend this approach won’t solve Netflix’s content access problem, it could bring an increased number of subscribers.    

YouTube seems to be making the opposite gamble.   In an era of simultaneous audience expansion and fragmentation, YouTube is currently developing a portfolio of online niche channels of a type too expensive under the economics of traditional television.  They’re betting that the current media market is reminiscent of the early emergence of cable, which saw the offering of specialized channels laughed off by the same media interests that ultimately ended up purchasing them. 

If the past is any prediction, the only safe bet seems to be that access to content matters, and that consolidation and further acquisition are almost certain.