How SBC Lost TX- And What It means More Broadly

Sorry to all, especially John, for being on an unintended hiatus. Got lots poppin’ at work and at home.

In a down to the wire fight, SBC suffered major defeat in Texas on two major legislative initiatives: one to prohibit municipal broadband, the other to remove local franchising requirements for their new fiber systems. In response, SBC Alum and wholly owned subsidiary Pete Sessions (R-TX), to introduce a new federal anti-muni bill, reconfirming my view that most major corporations behave astounding like 6 year old children.

How the Bell companies blew it represents a fascinating case study. Contrary to what a few folks have suggested, it was not an “accident”. In fact, it may, possibly, suggests some interesting things about how progressive politics (by which I do not mean “Democratic Party” I mean genuinely progressive regardless of party) may work for the next few years. My lengthy random musings below . . .

So there was Texas, land of SBC, with literally more than 100 lobbyists and a very powerful House Chair fighting to get anti-muni stuff out. What went wrong?

And it’s not just Texas. Just about every state where anti-muni bills were introduced, whether red or blue, they got shut down. The only exception was Nebraska, where the munis got completely rolled. And NE has a huge number of muni electric systems. Theoretically, the muni lobby should have been stronger in NE than in Maine or Indiana, which passed a pro-muni bill and killed an anti-bill respectively. What happened?

Lets take TX first. In the first instance, SBC complicated their play in texas by over-reaching. Rep. King, the SBC champion and powerful Committee Chair, tried to push two bills that were harmful to local government and involved deployment of broadband services. One would have prohibitted munis from deploying broadband networks. The other would have allowed telcos offering video services to get state-wide franchises instead of getting seprate cable franchises in each local franchising authority.

Puting these toegther effectively doubled the resistence to both. A number of organizations cared a great deal about getting ubiquetous broadband everywhere and recognize that munis are key to doing that. But they wouldn’t have cared about franchising issues generally. Folks like EDUCAUSE, for example, were very active on the anti-muni broadband bill in TX and in other states, rallying their members (many of whom, as state colleges or municipally funded colleges) would have been directly affected by the legislation. They would have viewed state franchising of telephone video services as, at best, a peripheral issue. But since they came for the pro-muni fight, they took on the other issue as well.

Similarly, a number of mayors and organizations that care about local franchising (e.g., community media groups) may not have felt passionate about municipal broadband, but they made common cause with the other side and therefore pushed opposition to both pieces of legislation.

For the public interest groups like CU and Savemuniwireless on the ground, it made it easy to craft one, effective message LEAVE LOCAL GOVERNMENT ALONE.

Furthermore, the high tech community, which have generally been supportive of state franchising but radically opposed to anti-muni broadband bills, were neutralized as potential allies to SBC. It was impossible for orgs like Dell or Intel, having stood up for local government on the anti-muni bill, to support preemption of local franchising.

Amusingly, the telco lobbysists in DC have a hard time believing they got beat up by an alliance of public interest groups. They insist it was the efforts of the cable cos that defeated them (although how this defeated them on the muni broadband issue, which was a separate bill, is unclear).

Now I don’t mind telco lobbysits being in denial. It makes it easier to beat them. But some folks like Glenn Flieschman, who should know better, are saying much the same thing. It was only the “accident” of linking these two that stopped the anti-muni bill in TX and the public interest folks shouldn’t claim this as a kill.

Hmmmm….well, I admit the linkage really helped us kill the anti-muni broadband bill on SBC’s home turf. But, if it was just this, how did we win in Indiana? Or Florida? Or Maine?

In fact, the only clear loss for munis is in Nebraska. Now it’s a funny thing about Nebraska. A bunch of us public interest types talked to the muni associations in NE when the NE bills were introduced and offered to try to help. We got a polite “no.” The munis cut a deal to protect established municipal electric cos, so they didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. They could settle it their way.

And then, in the last week of the legislatrue, the telco and cable interests rolled through a complete ban on anything but broadband over power line, and got conditions on that.

So what does all this mean? Were all of these accidents? In each state, the nature of the fight and of the players engaged was radically different. To the extent that anyone can claim a “master plan” that won the day, they are full of it. But, somehow, over a dozen highly succesful campaigns against powerful vested interests sprang up and the special interest bills got defeated.

Welcome to the Age of the Swarm, the new paradigm for civic engagement and public advocacy.

I am struggling to get this written up in a formal way, because I am convinced it is pretty important. Here it is in a nut shell. The old command and control model of public advocacy is dead. The environmental movement, the reproductive rights movement, all the major movements that you can name that were founded in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that rely on centralized decision-making, big write in camapaigns and marches, local chapters that take orders from the mother ship and focus on selected national issues and local issues that fit within a centrally determined national theme, are going the way of the dinosaur.

What remains are a lot of local, loosely organized small organizations and individuals. These work with larger national organizations like Free Press and Consumers Union, but not in a top-down way. Local groups pick their fights and interests, look for friends and allies, communicate with larger groups that can provide general materials and help customize them to particular circumstances. The larger groups link the smaller groups to other smaller groups and inform them of national issues that impact their local situation, and explain how to have impact in those situation.

And within this ecology are a few specialized groups like Media Access Project, which provide necessary specialized knowledge and make it available generally, so that the local groups can draw on the needed specialized knowledge when they need it, without re-inventing it each time. The effectiveness of the knowledge on the ground informs us (and other specialists) of what is needed and what isn’t. Given the evervescent nature of the issues and teh circumstace, it is, in essence, a highly efficient form of “outsourcing” for groups which would otherwise have to tie up their own resources for very short term gain.

Because this is merely loose coordination rather than a formal organization or alliance, the nature and size of the Swarm is free-form. It can manifest itself suddenly, spread rapidly to groups that generally have nothing in common or even oppose each other on most issues, react fluidly to changes in circumstance, then vanish once the immediate crisis is over. However, the personal relationships, mailing lists, and other coordinating tools built in the instant struggle may persist. They may atrophy and vanish, or may seek some new, similar minded campaign, or may simply lie dormant until needed.

My favorite analogy for this is a swarm of bees. Someone coming to a behaive and seeing its complex nature thinks “Wow, this must be the work of some centralized planning and control.”

But it doesn’t look that way to the bees. Any individual bee does its own thing, finding flowers, building honeycomb (conveniently on the section left open by its neighbor) etc. For all that the Queen sits in the center and eats jelly, she does not “command” the hive except by leaving and getting bees to chase after her. She is busy doing her specialized task, oblivious to most of the activity and vice-versa.

But the bees are not complete individualists. They share news with each other to achieve their common goals. A bee that finds a bunch of flowers comes back and does the flower dance to let the rest of the hive know. The bee doesn’t tell them what to do, it just says “flowers over here” and other bees go “yeah, we want flowers!”

Now let someone throw a stone at the hive. The entire hive will drop what it is doing and massively swarm the enemy intruder. But no bee general plans the strategy and calls the bees to charge. The bees just swarm all over until the intruder is gone, then gradually go back to what they were doing.

Public advocacy and civic engagement have entered the era of the swarm. Many of the groups that worked together on anti-muni issues have little to do with each other and their reasons for opposing the legisaltion varied enormously. But they came together and coordinated their efforts and, as a result, were effective against a huge, incumbent lobby that _should,_ by conventional wisdom, have been able to achieve its goals via insider deals and campaign contributions. At the least, they should have been able to buy off oppostion. But you can’t buy off the swarm, because the swarm is too big and defuse.

The Swarm has profound implications for progressive politics. It is possible to organize diverse interests around specific issues, provided they don’t need to accept all the political baggage that comes with campaigns organized by major organizations that have accumulated political baggage and branding over the years.

As I say, I am in the middle of writing an essay entitled “The Coming of the Swarm” and its impacts on civic enaggement. But gotta run . . .

Stay tuned . . . .

One Comment

  1. Hey Harold,

    Welcome back and thanks for a cool analysis. (On the subject of Bees, of course, I gotta be careful. Readers of Cheap Complex Devices know what I’m talking about. . .). Please, no need to apologize for having a life outside of Wetmachine. But I’m glad to see this post up this morning. . .

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