State by State Campaign to Gut Consumer Telecom Protections

In most states, telephone companies are required to serve everyone and when there are problems with the service, the state can mandate that the company fix them. But AT&T and ALEC are leading the charge to let these massive companies decide for themselves who should have access to a telephone, taking state regulators out of the loop.

These big companies use several arguments we are well familiar with - that mobile wireless is already available (in many rural areas, it actually is not available) and there is plenty of competition. If only that were the case.

I was thrilled to see David Cay Johnston cover this in a column on Reuters:

AT&T and Verizon, the dominant telephone companies, want to end their 99-year-old universal service obligation known as "provider of last resort." They say universal landline service is a costly and unfair anachronism that is no longer justified because of a competitive market for voice services.

The new rules AT&T and Verizon drafted would enhance profits by letting them serve only the customers they want. Their focus, and that of smaller phone companies that have the same universal service obligation, is on well-populated areas where people can afford profitable packages that combine telephone, Internet and cable television.

What happens when the states hand over authority to these companies? David has an answer:

AT&T and Verizon also want to end state authority to resolve customer complaints, saying the market will punish bad behavior. Tell that to Stefanie Brand.

Brand is New Jersey's ratepayer advocate whose experience trying to get another kind of service - FiOS - demonstrates what happens when market forces are left to punish behavior, she said. Residents of her apartment building wanted to get wired for the fiber optic service (FiOS) in 2008. Residents said, "We want to see your plans before you start drilling holes, and Verizon said, 'We will drill where we want or else, so we're walking,' and they did," Brand told me.

Verizon confirmed that because of the disagreement Brand's building is not wired. And there's nothing Brand can do about it. Verizon reminded me the state Board of Public Utilities no longer has authority to resolve complaints over FiOS.

Better broadband is not just about technology. FiOS is an advanced fiber-optic network that crushes any cable or DSL network but Verizon still is not accountable to the community. This is exactly why communities are smarter to find ways to build networks that are democratically accountable rather than hoping a private company will make the necessary investment.

Progressive States Network

The Progessive States Network has been tracking these bills and recently alerted its readers to the threat from these bills:

A rash of backward thinking appears to be taking hold in a number of states that might be better spending their time considering how to create modern technology jobs and skills at home. Some states are considering how best to deploy modern high-speed Internet to ensure their local economies and residents are ready to compete in the global marketplace. But in other states, legislators are debating whether telephone service should be offered at all - leaving many observers wondering whether they would prefer to live in the 19th century, before Alexander Graham Bell's invention became ubiquitous.

Fortunately, consumers and advocates in many states can still stop this horrible legislation - as Kentucky did (with some assistance from the Rural Broadband Policy Group).

Under the bill, AT&T, Windstream and Cincinnati Bell would no longer have to provide basic landline services to all homes and businesses if a competitor were available to provide them. If there were no competitor, a company could provide cellphone service instead.

Opponents, including Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, have argued that such a change would be a burden on the poor and the elderly who either can’t afford cellphones or are simply uncomfortable with them.

This came up recently in Mississippi:

A bill before the Legislature would wipe out the obligations of AT&T and some other phone companies to serve expensive customers and would limit the Public Service Commission's remaining authority over those firms.

Public Service Commissioners Brandon Presley, a Democrat, and Leonard Bentz, a Republican, are fighting the move, saying customers need regulators' intervention to get their problems fixed. Other phone companies are opposed to the bill, saying it could cut the connection fees collected by small rural telephone companies.

Minnesota has been considering a similar bill that has bipartisan support. Unfortunately, few in the state have realized just how bad this would be for rural and older residents.

Access Humboldt Logo

California is considering a bill RIGHT NOW.

"IP enabled communications services include not only broadband internet and online media services, but also the basic voice telephony services that we all use every day," said Sean McLaughlin, executive director of Access Humboldt and a Knight Media Policy Fellow with New America Foundation. "We are concerned that the Public Utilities Commission, along with Counties, Cities, Community Services, School and other special Districts will be hamstrung by SB 1161, prevented from protecting consumers, and hindered from developing community broadband projects that meet our local needs and interests."

Access Humboldt has echoed concerns of The Utility Reform Network (TURN), Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, Rural Broadband Policy Group, and the California Broadband Policy Network, in opposition to SB 1161. TURN is actively organizing statewide consumer opposition to the bill - joined by national organizations such as Free Press and the Rural Broadband Policy Group.

The LA Times has just noted the incredible power of AT&T's lobbyists in Sacramento.

At the 2010 event, AT&T's president and the state Assembly speaker toured Pebble Beach together in a golf cart, shaking hands with every lawmaker, lobbyist and other VIP in attendance.

The Speaker's Cup is the centerpiece of a corporate lobbying strategy so comprehensive and successful that it has rewritten the special-interest playbook in Sacramento. When it comes to state government, AT&T spends more money, in more places, than any other company.

Despite AT&T's massive power in California, there is still time to stop this backward-moving legislation.