Cable Vision

For most people, the word "cable" immediately conjures images of around-the-clock news and entertainment, the latest movies on HBO, talking heads on CNN or risque music videos on MTV. But when Jane Lawton, cable communications administrator for Montgomery County, Md., ponders the subject, she comes up with a whole different conclusion: For her, the local cable system will provide the fastest, easiest and least expensive way to link citizens with government and ease the digital divide.

This is not exactly your traditional cable, mind you. During the past few years, cable companies have been beefing up their networks by replacing copper with high-speed fiber-optic lines that will provide lightning-quick delivery of new broadband services — including data transmission, video transmission, local phone service and high-speed Internet access — to their customers. The technology differs from dial-up connections because users hook immediately into the Internet without need for a phone call, and they experience speeds nearly 100 times faster than a 56 kilobits/sec modem can provide.

"With the cable system, we can easily connect our own institutional network through a head-in [the cable network management center] and immediately have access to all of the subscribers of the cable system," Lawton said.

More than 230,000 of the 380,000 total households in Montgomery County receive cable services, so it's not surprising that Lawton envisions immediate applications for the technology once its two cable operators — StarPower and Montgomery Cable TV — finish rolling out the upgrades in the next year.

Her vision? Interactive town meetings. Real-time video feeds of early morning rush-hour conditions to daily commuters via a traffic management channel. Parent-teacher conferences via videoconferencing. Citizens sitting in the comfort of their own home, looking at their TV and using a remote control to renew a driver's license and apply for permits in real time.

"A lot of what people are able to do now with the Internet they'll be able to do that much more quickly and with better results with broadband cable," she said. "But for us, what's most exciting is that it gives us a really quick connection not to the businesses and not to the institutions but to the homes, and that really does give us so much more ability to interact with our citizens."

So Much Potential

Lawton's take on the cable connection is not unusual. A growing number of cities and counties see real advantages in leveraging these upgraded systems that the private sector is now rolling out en masse.

Pittsburgh, for example, which recently renegotiated its franchise with AT&T Cable Services, is planning innovative community applications, including distance learning and class sharing between schools, and videoconferencing with business partners and citizens. More specifically, its police department is developing an online fingerprinting project, and its planning department hopes to incorporate new Geographic Information System mapping applications.

In Montgomery County, Lawton predicts that schools will have seamless connections to homes, allowing for better communication between parents and teachers and easier access to resources for students. Cable links to community centers will allow seniors to tap health care information, while the local fire department is making use of the technology by offering training courses over a closed-circuit channel. And Montgomery County Public Schools are teaming up with the American Film Institute to offer live interactive educational workshops and presentations to schools and libraries via the broadband system.

"The potential is really limitless," said David Olson, director of the Portland, Ore., Office of Cable Communications and Franchise Management. He said his city expects huge benefits from the technology, not the least of which is economic development. A cadre of home-based and Internet businesses already make their home in Portland, but Olson said robust access to the Internet and the ability to instantly download massive data and graphic files will enable those firms to compete with larger firms.

In both Portland and Pittsburgh, the cable upgrade extends to the government in the form of an institutional network, or I-Net. With this in place, government and community organizations will be better able to interact with citizens who also happen to be cable subscribers. Among the possibilities: video streaming of live events and graphical presentations over the television.

"Very often, government agencies create graphical information rather than just text to explain different services, whether it's how to apply for a permit or how to use the 911 system," Olson explained. "But the more graphic it is, the more speed and capacity you need. Up until now, our citizens just haven't had that. So we see lots of possibilities for public education."

The medium's traditional role as television and entertainment provider also offers some intriguing possibilities.

Cox Communications Inc., a cable company providing upgraded service to a number of cities, including Tucson, Ariz., has set up arrangements with the History Channel and the Discovery Channel to provide a program called Line to Learning. It will provide schools with live interactive Internet presentations and discussions about specific issues over the upgraded cable network.

For example, a recent event focused on the revitalization of the original American flag by the Smithsonian Institution.

"It's a real learning advantage that high-speed cable is able to provide," said Rodger Dougherty, director of government and public affairs for the Tucson Regional Office of Cox Communications.

Taking the Initiative

Although broadband cable is basically a private-sector enterprise, local authorities have a critical role to play in making the most community-friendly use of this technology. The strongest advice from those already in renegotiations is for cities and counties to act sooner rather than later.

In short, invite the cable company to the table. "Governments that wait too long are going to find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide very quickly," Lawton said. "So they need to recognize and articulate that their citizens deserve and need these new services, even if it takes a while for people to actually begin to subscribe and take advantage of the services."

Beyond the obvious advantages of increased data speeds and capacity for consumers, broadband cable offers even more. Consumers eventually will be able to get phone service along with their data service and television. As a result, local phone companies, which are already beginning to feel the effects of new competition, are expected to work toward higher quality and lower prices on basic service, as well as ramping up their development and deployment of Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL), a competing broadband service that runs over existing phone lines (see "The Need for Speed").

"The deployment of cable seems to be having a cumulative effect in spurring competition and action on the part of many companies in providing consumers with more choice and hopefully better service in the long run," said Audrie Krauss, executive director of NetAction, a national nonprofit organization that educates about the need for high-speed Internet access.

Both public and private-sector officials recommend that governments take an aggressive approach to negotiating for community benefits, most notably in providing free or low-cost cable lines to schools, libraries, community centers and low-income neighborhoods.

In Tucson, for example, Cox Communications is providing free equipment and service to the Hope 6 project, a revitalization of the low-income Barrio Santa Rosa housing projects.

Rodney Akers, assistant director of the Pittsburgh Department of General Services, said communities will also be well served by including a state-of-the-art clause in any agreement. Pittsburgh, he said, didn't insist on one in its earliest franchise negotiations, a fact that resulted in the city having one of the country's most obsolete cable networks. Pittsburgh's new arrangement with AT&T calls for upgrades to the infrastructure if upgrades are performed in any other of the company's municipalities.

"The stakes are too high nowadays," he said. "No one can afford to get left behind technologically anymore."

— Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va.


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