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AT&T-Backed Telecommunications Deregulation Bill Shot Down in Wisconsin

Phillip Dampier April 26, 2010 Astroturf, AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment


Consumer advocates are celebrating the defeat of telecommunications bills designed to favor AT&T’s corporate interests in Wisconsin.

Assembly Bill 696 and Senate Bill 469 were designed to give AT&T and other telephone companies the option of no longer being classified as telecommunications utilities.

Once that happened, the state Public Service Commission would lose the authority to oversee much of their operations.  In practical terms, it means phone companies could raise their rates at will and never have to justify them by reporting their profits and expenses to the Commission.  Another provision would have eliminated the PSC’s authority to deal with phone service complaints on behalf of consumers and businesses.  But considering the bills would have also eliminated the universal service requirement, AT&T and other phone companies could have simply disconnected land lines in unprofitable areas of the state and left rural Wisconsin with no phone service to complain about.

The legislation was introduced by Senator Jeff Plale in the Senate and Representative Josh Zepnick in the Assembly.  Both men are Democrats serving districts in Milwaukee.


Potentially motivating the legislation were substantial campaign contributions from AT&T.  For Plale, who is the top recipient of telecom contributions among all Democrats across the state, AT&T provided $4,000 and the cable industry donated $6,446 from 2003 through 2009, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Zepnick received $1,400 from cable providers and AT&T during the period.  In total, at least a half million dollars in contributions from the phone and cable companies have been spent on Wisconsin legislators over the past six years.

Zepnick’s legislative maneuvering to push through the bill in the waning days of the state legislative session collided with Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, who pulled the rug out from under AT&T and other telecom interests by referring the bill to the Legislature’s budget committee for review — a black hole from which the bill had no chance of emerging.

That triggered a reaction from Zepnick and his friends in the telecom front group community.

Zepnick told Wisconsin newspapers he wasn’t sure what to make of Decker’s diversion of his legislation, which political observers suggest is nonsense.  At the end of every legislative session, large numbers of orphaned bills are dumped in study committees or never taken up in both bodies.

“If it doesn’t get done, that’s going to be a huge missed opportunity for Wisconsin,” Thad Nation, executive director of AT&T-backed Wired Wisconsin told the Associated Press.  Nation claimed the bill would have traded regulatory authority away in return for more investment in the state by communications providers. “As other states move forward, Wisconsin will be left behind.”

Consumer advocates suggested Nation had it exactly backwards.

“It eliminates the regulations the Public Service Commission has used to ensure affordable and reliable landline telephone service for decades,” said Charlie Higley, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, who told the AP three million landlines still exist in Wisconsin.  That turns back the clock on service standards.


With AT&T and other providers left to increase rates at a whim, the only thing moving forward, and upwards, would be Wisconsin phone and cable bills.

Not every legislator bought AT&T’s position that less regulation equals more service.

Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie), opposed the legislation from the day it was introduced, suggesting he would push for amendments to ensure the PSC would continue to protect landline phone customers and, for the first time, extend that power to cell phone service.

“If a service provider is not doing their job, consumers should have recourse. That’s one of our jobs as legislators,” he told AP. “We have to be sure that consumers get the service they paid for and it’s properly provided to them.”

As late as last week, AT&T had a dozen lobbyists working the Wisconsin legislature for votes.  Wired Wisconsin, which is actually an extension of corporate lobbying firm Nation Consulting, pushed the idea that Google would bypass Wisconsin for its Think Big With a Gig fiber to the home network if the state didn’t adopt the deregulation bill the firm was promoting.

Ultimately, the proposed legislation passed the Wisconsin Assembly but was never taken up by the state Senate.  Since being shelved for the session, Wired Wisconsin has moved on to re-tweeting Broadband for America pieces bashing Net Neutrality and FCC broadband oversight.  As Stop the Cap! readers know, Broadband for America is the largest telecom Astroturf effort ever, with dozens of members that are funded by Verizon or AT&T or equipment manufacturers whose businesses depend on contracts with large telecom companies.

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