LAISSEZ FAIRE: Deregulating Wisconsin telcoms to "help" beleaguered consumers like these | Wis.Community

LAISSEZ FAIRE: Deregulating Wisconsin telcoms to "help" beleaguered consumers like these

[img_assist|nid=65518|title=No ringy dingy|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=145|height=142]The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in our star politicians.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Business News section today reported on major problems that hundreds of state residents lately have faced in getting what they paid for from Element Mobile, a Wisconsin Rapids cellular telephone provider. [Get me rewrite! The newspaper partially reported on the situation. Read on to see what it left out.]

Some of Element's aggrieved customers told a Journal Sentinel reporter how they've experienced either lousy cell service or no service at all, yet have been unable to get the provider to credit their account, while refusing to release them from their contracts without huge cash penalties. Complaints against Element Mobile are up 73 percent since February, said, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Pathetically, the agency's response to the complaints so far has consisted of writing Element Mobile and asking the firm what it intends to do about the situation. The agency said it is "powerless" to do more.

"We have asked Element Mobile point blank, what do you intend to do for your customers? And we have not received a response," said Sandy Chalmers, administrator of the consumer protection division of the agriculture department.

"We are pushing for resolution on these issues, whether we have legal jurisdiction or not. But to date, they have not responded," Chalmers added.

Read again that line about "whether we have legal jurisdiction or not." It figures into my comment that the Journal Sentinel didn't report the entire story.

The main reason the Ag Department is effectively powerless? That would be because of recurring spasms of deregulation fever in the Wisconsin Capitol and in Washington, D.C. Indeed, the Ag Department didn't use to handle citizen complaints about telcom service at all. That was the mission of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC), which not only handled such complaints but which was created to regulate utilities of all kinds, including telcoms. The PSC wasn't perfect, but had a deserved reputation as a knowledgable and at least somewhat effective agency.

But the PSC apparently was too effective in the eyes of telcom providers, which lobbied state and national legislators incessently and with broadband amounts of campaign cash. Result: Two telcom deregulation bills in Wisconsin that stripped away many consumer protections or turned them into window dressing. And further deregulation in D.C., which stripped away power from the Federal Communications Commission. Because, if you believe conservatives, America has been over-regulated and the markets are self-correcting, meaning customers who get ripped off can always go find another provider -- if not the money that was swiped away from them by unscrupulous companies.

One of the key Wisconsin legislators who took lots of campaign donations from the telcom industry and who then, quite coincidentally, ushered telcom deregulation measures through the state legislature was former State Sen. Jeff Plale, a conservative Democrat from South Milwaukee. Plale apparently was so effective in serving corporate interests over those of his own rank and file constituents that Gov. Scott Walker decided to appoint him to an important post in his cabinet after voters threw Plale out of elective office in favor of progressive Democrat Chris Larson. [Good thing Larson won, too, because it's hard to imagine a re-elected Sen. Plale would have left the state with his fellow Democrats to slow the breakneck passage of the anti-uinion bill.]  

So, those aggrieved cell phone customers who report they're getting ripped off to the tune in some cases of hundreds of dollars by a Wisconsin-based cell phone company? They can blame that in significant part on a coalition of Republican and conservative Democratic lawmakers who helped deregulate the industry, making it less accountable, and they can blame in particular a key Walker appointee, Plale, who is now in charge of the state's railroad office. Yeah, that's likely to work out great, too.


August 28, 2011 - 1:38pm