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
"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.
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
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.