Thursday, November 1, 2007

Plot thickens as Joint Finance Committee passes "Video Competition Act"

Between the Joint Finance Committee's passing of SB 107 (the so-called "Video Competition Bill") and Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker's fanboy support, things aren't looking particularly good for blocking or amending the deeply flawed piece of legislation.

The Capital Times has another excellent, in-depth and lengthy look at both sides of the debate. In the article, all of the touted pros are listed, then one-by-one taken down a few pegs by facts, history and the testimony of people in the know. It's a fascinating read, but the jist is this:

  • AT&T (once known as Ameritech) has made grand promises of job growth and high-speed access for all before, in 1993, when they successfully helped to push through a phone deregulation bill. Many of the promises made by Ameritech and written into their contracts with the state were not fulfilled or only half-assedly so.
  • AT&T has significantly reduced the amount of jobs since that bill passed, not increased them.
  • Profits for the company skyrocketed after deregulation, as have prices for consumers.

Particularly interesting was this bit about the supposed job creation that would result from passage of the bill, and the communication union's position on the whole thing:
The Communications Workers of America, which represents AT&T employees in the field and in the office, does not appear eager to discuss its support, however.

When contacted by a reporter, Ann McNeary, chair of the Wisconsin Political Council of the Communications Workers of America, said she could not comment on anything and then hung up the phone.

Phil Neuenfeldt, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, the parent union for CWA, did not return two phone calls seeking comment on the proposed bill, even though Wisconsin State AFL-CIO president David Newby had identified him and McNeary as the people in the know.

An internal July 25 memo to union members obtained by The Capital Times, however, reveals that while the CWA publicly supports the video franchise bill, some members, at least, are skeptical about AT&T's claims about future job growth.

In the memo, Rich Pearson, chair of the CWA Local 4603's Mobilization committee, blasts AT&T's decision over the summer to close a customer service center in Milwaukee.

"While we are all aware that AT&T has been whittling away at the workforce for years, this decision comes even as they tout the fact they are adding jobs in Wisconsin," he wrote.

"It is important that the public and our legislators realize that these new jobs are term jobs, with limited benefits, and, in the case of Prem Techs in particular, jobs that have wages which are dramatically out of line with other positions in the company."
And the kick in the pants at the very end of the article is especially funny (but not "funny ha-ha"):

Meanwhile, video franchise bill authors Plale and Montgomery have also teamed up on another telecommunications bill. Introduced in October, this one would deregulate basic local phone service in two years. Under the legislation, local phone companies would no longer have to submit rate increases to the Public Service Commission for basic local phone service. Critics say senior citizens and rural residents would be most adversely affected because these populations still rely in large part on traditional land line service.

The Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau says a telecommunications company would also not be subject to any "infrastructure investment requirements."

This provision, says Tom Allibone, an independent auditor based in New Jersey who conducts audits for TeleTruth, "would wipe the slate clean of all prior commitments." AT&T, in other words, would be legally absolved of all its former promises "to build out the infrastructure to support broadband," he argues.

Says Laitman: "This brings it full cycle."

So basically AT&T is trying to deregulate everything so they can more fully control their profit margin, the standards they're held to, and who they choose to serve. Plus they appear to be attempting to nullify all the promises they made back in the 90's with the first deregulation bill. I can't help but admire their moxy and cunning, but forgive me if I kind of despise them a bit, too.

The really pesky part is that their PR campaign seems to have successfully pulled the wool over most Wisconsinite's eyes. The general consensus is that people want more competition and choice in their telecommunications and cable companies. I'm all for that. In fact, I think it's necessary. But, despite how they're selling it, that's not really what this bill does.

Plus, history already provides an example of what really happens when legislation of this kind gets passed. We've only to look at the results of the deregulation bill from '93, or the various deregulation actions that have happened all across the country in the last decade. They don't end well. Instead, it seems to lead to higher consumer costs, job cuts, ugly boxes, poorer service and an even less hospitable climate for public access stations. Frankly, they can't afford for things to get much worse.

In the end, there really ought to be some kind of compromise bill. Increasing competition and service areas is a great idea. We could look to the legislation passed in Illinois for an example of what to do. But this current bill is so radically flawed as to be unusable, and we should urge our lawmakers to head back to the drawing board, free of lobbyist dollars (from either side), and hammer out something that works for everyone. It is possible.

There's still time to urge your Senators to block passage of the bill, and to give ol' Russ the what-for. has petitions to sign and letters to send.
Or contact your Senators and/or Governor Doyle directly:
Governor via email, governor via phone and snail mail.
Find your Senator and contact them, too.

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