Forward -- into the past! | WisCommunity

Forward -- into the past!

[img_assist|nid=50845|title=Telcom tower|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=150]After Scott Walker killed a billion dollars' worth of federal investment in Wisconsin high-speed rail, his team began making sure that another high-speed service -- broadband Internet along with telephony -- will be more costly and less available, especially in some rural areas of the state.

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature has enacted the latest wet dream of the state's telcom industry -- with gargantuan AT&T at the forefront. Gov. Walker has promised to sign the measure into law. [Democrats, though in the minority of both houses, voted in disappointingly large numbers along with Republicans. Telcom money flows mostly to the GOP, but Democrats do get a taste]

The legislature greatly deregulates POTS -- that's trade terminology for "Plain Old Telephone Service," on which many Wisconsin families still depend. Consumer advocates killed an earlier attempt when Democrats ran the show, despite a fervent push by State Sen. Jeff Plale, a conservative Democrat who is now in Walker's administration.

The new bill makes it much easier for telephone companies to jack up rates and deny basic phone service. #333333; font-family: Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 14px; line-height: 21px;">State regulators will no longer be able to investigate consumer complaints, monitor service quality, regulate Internet services, or oversee phone rates whatsoever. Telcos could even stop providing service in some regions of the state, and the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) will be stripped of its existing power to say otherwise. All of that and more is what the telcoms sought, and in fact, the industry wrote most of the language in the bill, working closely with Repubilcans.

Republicans called it a "job creation" bill, but telcoms have been busy dumping employees, many of them unionized serious observers of the telcom industry do not expect that trend to change under this law.

The telcoms insist they need to be on an "even" level with other providers such as cable operators in having more freedom to do business -- i.e., less regulation. Never mind that every wired and wireless communications company in America makes money by using public resources -- precious broadcast bandwidth and public rights of way in the ground or over streets. These rights of way cost taxpayers money to maintain, and the telco businesses increasingly would like to make us believe that they have every right to squat on those public resources, and pay us squat for them.

Power companies are regulated for the same reason as telcoms have been. They hold near-monopoly power in their operating territories, and depend on public rights of way. As a result their rates and many of their technical and operating decisions are subject to PSC review. A wave of Enron-inspired power utility deregulation a decade ago nearly wrecked the nation's power grid while soaking many ratepayers. Unlike some other states, Wisconsin decided not to deregulate power utilities. Telcoms, on the other hand? Heck, said our telcom-enriched lawmakers. Let's cut 'em loose!

In the last round of Wisconsin deregulation in the '90s, the telcoms promised that in return they'd invest millions of dollars in new, modernized infrastructure to improve reliability and offer companion services like DSL-based Internet. Yet many communities still do not have such options. How'd that round of deregulation work out? Well, AT&T is back at the trough in Madison, asking for even more deregulation.

Ignoring the psychiatric rule that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, the politicians appear to believe that this time dereg will work for sure. AT&T remains one of the most profitable companies on Earth (right up there with the top five oil companies) yet not much has changed in the way of phone service in all but the most lucrative and biggest of AT&T's Wisconsin markets.

It doesn't have to be this way. #366388; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 23px;">North Carolina, for example, has moved in a direction earlier pursued by Wisconsin grassroots organizations.

#212121; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 23px;">#366388; cursor: pointer; background-image: initial; background-attachment: initial; background-origin: initial; background-clip: initial; background-color: transparent; border-bottom-style: none; border-bottom-width: initial; border-bottom-color: initial; background-position: initial initial; background-repeat: initial initial;">Back in the '90s, a number of smaller Wisconsin communities, #366388; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 23px;">townships and counties -- weary#366388; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 23px;"> of waiting for the telcoms to get around to giving them service they wanted to maintain their economies -- began to develop their own not-for-profit broadband networks, both wired and wireless. The systems provided modern communciations services that private firms refused to offer, and at less cost.

#212121; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 23px;">#366388; cursor: pointer; background-image: initial; background-attachment: initial; background-origin: initial; background-clip: initial; background-color: transparent; border-bottom-style: none; border-bottom-width: initial; border-bottom-color: initial; background-position: initial initial; background-repeat: initial initial;">The movement began even before that. In Milwaukee, the original fight in the 1980s over who would win the city's sizable cable TV franchise included a serious bid from local community groups who formed a not-for-profit cooperative to run the cable system. Time Warner's predecessor firm dropped a lot of lobbying cash on the city's aldermen and won the franchise, despite not even being ranked as top bidder. Later, the other community systems struggled against increasing pressure from private telcoms who had money bins full of cash to bring to bear. The telcom's aim wasn't to provide better service; it was to wipe out the public competition. 

#212121; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 23px;">#366388; cursor: pointer; background-image: initial; background-attachment: initial; background-origin: initial; background-clip: initial; background-color: transparent; border-bottom-style: none; border-bottom-width: initial; border-bottom-color: initial; background-position: initial initial; background-repeat: initial initial;">Wisconsin's community groups were stymied not just by big business competing unfairly, but also influence peddling that helped corrupt local governments and ultimately the state's legislature. But somehow, North Carolina's effort won out. #212121; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 23px;">When localities like Jackson, Antigo and Trempeleau County developed not-for-profit, community-based, broadband networks where the big telcoms refused, the private operators ran a political end-around play and got state legislators to make such public operations much more difficult to develop and maintain -- all on the basis that government shouldn't compete with private firms. Mainly, their argument went, it's unfair to us profiteers when not-for-profits are allowed to exist. Really. That was their main argument.

#212121; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 23px;">And that's the argument even when the private sector constitutes itself as a rapacious, super-profitable duopoly that engineers a lax regulatory climate. 

#212121; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 23px;">#366388; cursor: pointer; background-image: initial; background-attachment: initial; background-origin: initial; background-clip: initial; background-color: transparent; border-bottom-style: none; border-bottom-width: initial; border-bottom-color: initial; background-position: initial initial; background-repeat: initial initial;">Meanwhile, North Carolina in recent years has been a paragon of progressive thinking that in some respects rivals Wisconsin's past progressive era. It boasts one of the nation's most successful community broadband movements. Locally owned, ultra-modern communication nets deliver fast, cheap Internet across the "First in Flight" state.

#212121; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 23px;">But there, too, big telcoms including #366388;">Time Warner Cable are directing their ire. #212121; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 23px;">Telcoms have spent millions lobbying North Carolina lawmakers, just like they did successfully in Wisconsin. Result: That state's #366388;">legislature recently approved ;" rel="nofollow" href="http://fixcongressfirst.org/newsletters/tracking/link/stop-corporations-..." target="_blank">#366388;">a bill that bans competition in the marketplace from community broadband networks. Under the legislation, which includes industry-bred boilerplate language that has popped up across the country, local communities would be forced to let their residents fall prey to the profit-motive whims of largely unregulated, private telecommunications networks.

#212121; font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Arial, sans-serif; font-size: 18px; line-height: 23px;">Such laws are why the USA has some of the slowest and poorest broadband service in the industrialized world. America, where the Internet was invented, is now bringing up the rear.

As is frequently the case, businesses insist that competition is good, but paradoxically the same businesses spend a lot of time and money trying to kill their competition -- and, increasingly, that effort includes spending lots of money on lobbying and in campaign contributions designed to rewrite local, state and federal laws such that the laws favor those same business interests.

Back when Wisconsin was still a heavily agricultural state, small family farms banded together into some of the nation's first cooperatives. They knew that they could help one another and still remain family-owned. Then along came the agribusiness interests that ran little operations out of business. The farmers fought back, organzing into The Grange movement, a kind of informal owners association. But unrelated financial excesses that led to the Great Depression and the subsequent advertising age came along and helped extinguish that bright flame. Many Wisconsin towns still have small farm and other co-ops, and the co-op movement in Wisconsin overall is far from dead, but the greater promise of that movement has been stymied by the corrupting influence of corporate cash. 

Next time a legislator tells you that it's unfair for citizens to organize themselves into groups to collectively get a better deal, ask that person why corporations -- which after all only exist because the government once granted them limited license -- should be able to do almost anything they like while individual workers, not-for-profits and small, non-stock businesses are to be dissuaded. In America, increasingly, profit move is perceived as a virtue, but if we've learned anything from the Great Depression and this decade's financial crisis, it's that we should cast a narrow eye toward corporate entities, which demand all the rights of personhood but few of the obligations, and whose main purpose is to make a lot of money.

As Ronald Reagan said: Trust, but verify. He should have added: And regulate, in order to protect the common man and our collective heritage.

Published

May 18, 2011 - 7:28pm

Author

randomness