"A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money!" Although it’s never been documented, Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-IL) is said to have uttered that famous line some 30 years ago. True or not, it gives you a painfully accurate sense of the way government, and politicians in particular, play with numbers.

Dirksen, who died in 1969, certainly used the "billion here, billion there" part of the line on many occasions. His point, of course, was that one heck of a lot of money was being spent. He used the line to reinforce his position on whatever spending bill he was opposing. It’s doubtful he used the line when his own spending proposals came up. And that’s the way of Washington. Numbers are handy as long as you can use them against someone else and ascribe a deep meaning to them, occult or otherwise.

This should not come as a surprise to the cable industry. The numbers game has long been alive and well. The most common example today is the citation of numbers that "prove" the U.S. is behind in the race for broadband deployment. We stumbled across the list maintained by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Gads! We are now down to number 15 from 12! You can bet that the politicians who want a federal broadband industrial policy adopted, with money for buildout in "rural" areas, are aghast at that number.

But does it mean anything? Not likely. Other studies show that those numbers leave out, for instance, broadband connections at work or in colleges. That more than 80% of users of the Internet are now connected with broadband at home and, yes, Virginia, it looks like we are even catching up and overtaking Canada in "the race." But the numbers are just that — numbers. They can be and often are manipulated to fit whatever the user wants to portray. Listen to the debate on global warming and you will see the same phenomenon. One side decries how the temperature is going up annually, the other side points out that it was higher before. Both sides are playing with numbers.

Have cable rates gone up every year? By more than inflation numbers? Well, depends on whether you look at the gross number or that same amount divided by the number of channels offered. One goes up, one goes down! The safest approach is to be absolutely skeptical of anyone using "absolute" numbers to support an argument. Be ready to look at the numbers, and question them in more than one way before buying into Washington numerology.

A former FCC attorney and president of CATA, Steve Effros is a columnist and consultant in the cable television industry. He can be reached at steve@effros.com.

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