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Ohio’s Statewide 100-Gigabit Network You Paid For (But Can’t Access) & Other Broadband Woes

Phillip Dampier December 12, 2012 Astroturf, AT&T, Broadband Speed, Community Networks, Competition, Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Ohio’s Statewide 100-Gigabit Network You Paid For (But Can’t Access) & Other Broadband Woes

oarnetThe taxpayers of Ohio spent $13 million to fund a new 100 gigabit institutional fiber network average Ohio residents cannot access.

The upgraded Ohio Academic Resources Network (OARnet) delivers 10 times the speed of its immediate predecessor and is the first statewide network to achieve 100Gbps.

Gov. John Kasich was on hand to light the network, telling attendees at the ribbon-cutting ceremony it will provide research opportunities and help some of the state’s largest corporations manage manufacturing, data mining and analytics, alternative energy development, consumer products and medicine. He, among others, downplayed the fact the network offers little to average businesses and consumers in Ohio who helped pay for it. Large businesses can sign agreements with educational institutions around the state to gain access to the super-speed network.

While institutional broadband networks for education and research are important, and there is nothing inherently wrong with OARnet or its mission, it does very little to solve Ohio’s stubbornly poor broadband landscape, especially in rural areas.

This dollar-a-holler astroturf effort failed to impress Longmont voters, who turned away a Comcast-funded opposition campaign to open up the city's fiber network.

Advocacy groups affiliated with AT&T are back asking for more regulatory relief in return for promising a better broadband future for Ohio.

Ohio ranked a dismal 39th in TechNet’s broadband rankings published this month. Ohio’s Republican-dominated state government has been willing to devote state’s resources to enhance institutional broadband, but relies almost entirely on the private sector for broadband expansion to small businesses and residential customers.

TechNet notes Ohio has a history of cutting deals with providers like AT&T, among others, for “alternative” regulatory arrangements to encourage broadband expansion in exchange for approval of telecom company mergers.

The results have been meager in rural areas of the state. Despite provider promises to do more, fewer than 2% of Ohio residents have access to fiber broadband, and many smaller communities are forced to use slow speed DSL from AT&T, if they can get the service at all. AT&T has some more bad news for rural Ohio. The company’s idea of improvement is to dismantle its rural wired network and force customers to use AT&T’s expensive, bottom-rated wireless service, complete with extremely low usage caps.

As part of that process, AT&T and their friends and partners are back with more promises.

This time, it comes from research-for-hire reports like, “Incentive to Invest in Ohio Broadband & The Carrier of Last Resort Obligation,” which argues if Ohio releases AT&T from its obligation to provide phone service, investors will magically pour money into the state on broadband improvements. Just like last time. Only it never really happened for wired broadband customers.

The “report” was paid for by “Technology for Ohio’s Tomorrow,” a non-profit organization that claims it “advocates for public policies that inspire and encourage innovation in technology while informing and educating technology consumers about legislative and regulatory issues that impact their lives.”

While those things may be true, even more insight can be gleaned from who actually operates the group.

techforohioStop the Cap! learned:

  • Technology for Ohio’s Tomorrow is the Ohio project of Midwest Consumers for Choice and Competition;
  • Midwest Consumers for Choice and Competition is also related to Mobile Consumers for Choice and Competition;
  • Mobile Consumers for Choice and Competition is a registered lobbying group in the state of Wisconsin, doing business as Wired Wisconsin;
  • Wired Wisconsin’s chief partner and benefactor? AT&T It’s chief lobbyist and executive director? Thad Nation;
  • Nation has run a whole assortment of “consumer” groups out of his lobbying firm Nation Consulting, including: Illinois Technology Partnership, TV4Us, and Technology for Ohio’s Tomorrow. His work coincides closely with AT&T’s corporate agenda. When AT&T wanted statewide franchising of U-verse, TV4Us arrived on scene advocating exactly that. When AT&T wants to promote deregulation of its wired and wireless efforts and win government assistance with no strings attached, Wired Wisconsin, the Illinois Technology Partnership and Technology for Ohio’s Tomorrow were ready to go to bat for AT&T.
  • AT&T’s core involvement in all of these groups goes undisclosed.

Nation calls it an “advocacy agenda,” (we call it Astroturf backed by bought-and-paid for research) and Nation’s firm claims to specialize in it:

At Nation Consulting, Nation focuses on assisting corporate clients with strategic planning in government and public relations, and managing crisis communications.

Our team has worked on the “inside” of the offices of Governors, Congressional members, and state agencies. We’ve worked at every level of government, and we have the relationships necessary to help you navigate state and federal bureaucracies to accomplish your goals. We know how government works – and we know what government can do for you.

Getting government officials or bodies to do what you want isn’t easy. Government is inherently a slow, bureaucratic entity. When you want elected or appointed officials to change policy, you need a comprehensive plan – and the resources, relationships and quick-thinking to implement that plan.

We come to you with decades of experience in advocacy, moving legislators and engaging state agency leaders to action. Let us help you build and drive an aggressive advocacy agenda.

Regardless of your industry, the internet has a role to play in achieving your public relations goals – and we have the experience and the expertise to implement a plan suited to your needs. Whether you need to effectively use social networking sites, manage a blog, conduct email campaigns or use Web 2.0 tools, Nation Consulting can help you maximize your online presence in a way that is both cost-effective and beneficial to your business or organization.

Wisconsin Republicans Rushing AT&T’s Deregulation Wishlist Into Law Before Recall Votes

Phillip Dampier May 11, 2011 Astroturf, AT&T, Competition, Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Wisconsin Republicans Rushing AT&T’s Deregulation Wishlist Into Law Before Recall Votes

Governor Walker

You have to hand it to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.  He wants to push through his legislative agenda come hell or high water.  After creating a national controversy about his battles with the state’s public unions, Walker and his Republican colleagues are in a hurry to ram through their laundry list of legislative initiatives before Wisconsin voters have a chance to potentially recall a number of them.

Among Gov. Walker’s favorites — a telecommunications deregulation bill ghost-written by AT&T.  If such legislation seems familiar to you, it is.  It’s largely the same bill written by and for telecommunications companies that withered in the Democratic-controlled legislature last year.  Now the Republicans hold the majority, and they see measures to strip out rate protection for basic landline service, investigations of consumer complaints, and holding low-rated companies’ feet to the fire as “anti-business and anti-competitive.”

Somehow, bill proponents claim, all of this deregulation will inspire AT&T and other companies to wire rural Wisconsin for broadband service, which would be a remarkable feat considering they’ve not done so in other states where they’ve passed nearly-identical deregulation bills several years ago.  In fact, the bill eliminates any state oversight of broadband matters period, end of story.

Perhaps AT&T’s goodwill will bring broadband to the rural masses.  What are the chances?  Not good, considering the proposed legislation also allows AT&T the right to abandon providing basic telephone service in the same rural areas still waiting for broadband.  Your chances of getting DSL from AT&T are markedly diminished if the company decides to disconnect your phone line, permanently.

“What’s in it for the citizens of Wisconsin?” asked Rob Boelk, president of one Wisconsin chapter of the Communications Workers of America that represents AT&T workers. “If you want to give away the farm, what will you get in return?”

Why campaign contribution checks, of course.

AT&T and other telecommunications companies have donated heavily to legislators in the state, particularly those sponsoring their legislative wishlists.  Walker has made serving the interests of AT&T and the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association one of his top priorities this spring.

AT&T is delighted.  In fact, they are so confident in their friendship with Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature, they are willing to throw their usual deregulation allies overboard in the bill.  Verizon and Sprint are fiercely opposing AT&T’s bill, despite promoting it in prior years.  At issue are new provisions requiring wireless and VoIP providers to pay higher government fees and also pay access charges for using other companies’ broadband networks (AT&T’s) to complete calls.

At a recent hearing, telecom company executives told members of the state Senate’s Information Technology Committee Senate Bill 13‘s deregulation would bring competitive balance in the industry, wider broadband access and create tens of thousands of jobs.

They didn’t bring any evidence to back up those claims, but bill sponsor Rich Zipperer, (R-Pewaukee) was ready to deliver AT&T’s talking points anyway.  He’s a helper.

“Today’s smart phone world is governed by rotary phone regulations,” Zipperer said. “We have to ensure our telecommunications infrastructure can keep up with market demands.”

Evidently that means upgrading wireless networks, something AT&T is preoccupied with these days judging from their television ads, while ignoring Wisconsin’s rural consumers.

In fact, when similar bills passed in other AT&T states, basic telephone service rates began increasing, sometimes repeatedly.  AT&T wants to push customers into pre-packaged bundles of services, so most of the savings go to those who take all of their telecommunications business to AT&T.  But if all you want (or can afford) is a basic telephone line, price increases are in your future.

The dollar-a-holler groups are out and about

Zipperer called copper wire landlines “ancient technology,” a relevant point if AT&T was delivering something better to every Wisconsin resident.  They are not.  Instead, while their landline network languishes in rural areas, the company is investing in U-verse upgrades in larger cities, setting up the potential for telecommunications have’s and have-no-longer’s.

Some of the accompanying documentation supporting the deregulation bill is also suspect.

We were particularly struck with broadband map data provided by bill proponents showing a bountiful supply of competitive choice for broadband service in Wisconsin. Ironically, their bill also bans the state from getting involved in broadband mapping in the future.  Those who control the maps control the debate over broadband availability.  As usual, provider-influenced maps promise service where none exists or comes with strings attached.

Providers equate wireless broadband as identical to DSL, fiber, and cable Internet service.  Because of that, customers even in “one-bar” towns can “enjoy” wireless broadband from AT&T and Verizon (as long as they keep it under 2-5GB a month with AT&T or under 10GB on Verizon’s mobile broadband plans.)  Sprint, which barely covers rural and suburban Wisconsin, is also considered a player.  So is T-Mobile, despite the fact AT&T wants to buy it.  For most of Wisconsin, the broadband reality is far different.  AT&T is the dominant provider of DSL and U-verse service, Time Warner Cable delivers most of the cable broadband.  In rural areas, a handful of Wireless ISPs deliver service to some areas, but many others have no access at all.

Robust competition?  No.  Will this bill change that?  No.

Wired Wisconsin is wired into AT&T's cash machine.

Deregulation only enhances the trend of landline providers like AT&T allowing their aging landline networks to go to pot.  Providing DSL or wireless broadband to rural Wisconsin requires the same return on investment with this bill as it does without, and these companies have refused to deliver either, using that reasoning, for years.

Despite common sense reality, the dollar-a-holler groups are working overtime with AT&T to push this bill.  Take “Wired Wisconsin,” a group particularly ‘burdened’ with its corporate sponsors (namely AT&T).  Wired Wisconsin is all for the deregulation bill, which they like to call “modernized telecom rules.”  The group’s leader Thad Nation, is a lobbyist who has run several campaigns promoting AT&T’s agenda, including the ironically-named Midwest Consumers for Choice and Competition, TV4Us and Technology for Ohio’s Tomorrow, all creatures of AT&T.

Nation’s lobbying firm explains how it works:

Getting government officials or bodies to do what you want isn’t easy. Government is inherently a slow, bureaucratic entity. When you want elected or appointed officials to change policy, you need a comprehensive plan – and the resources, relationships and quick-thinking to implement that plan.

We come to you with decades of experience in advocacy, moving legislators and engaging state agency leaders to action. Let us help you build and drive an aggressive advocacy agenda.

It’s a tough job, and Nation can be glad he isn’t doing it alone.  The Discovery Institute, which has turned pay-for-play research into an art form, was linked by Wired Wisconsin to “negate the myths and false assumptions” deregulation will bring.  They quote from Connected Nation, another industry connected group.  The only false assumption is that these people do this work for free and their results represent actual independent analysis.

Even if one were to believe AT&T’s claims, fact-checking them is just a few states away, in places like Arkansas, Kansas, or Texas.  None of them are bastions of rural broadband.  They weren’t before AT&T’s lobbying circus came to town and they still aren’t after they left.

Exposed: Shallow Editorials, Press Coverage in Illinois Promotes AT&T Deregulation Bill That Harms Consumers

Illinois politics is business as usual — if you’re a high-powered business like AT&T, that is.  They’ve just proven how easy it is to sucker the fifth largest state’s legislature and several newspaper editorial boards with a dog and pony show of promises that it will have few regrets (and no consequences) for breaking later on.

Once again, AT&T is upset about the terms it agreed to in efforts to rebuild its nationwide reach through frenzied mergers and acquisitions.  This time it’s the 1999 merger with Ameritech.  AT&T claims the promises its partner SBC made to state regulators to green-light the deal are now too hard to honor. If only you and I could lobby legislators to walk away from our own personal responsibilities.  “I can’t pay my town taxes because the neighborhood has changed since I first moved here, so it would be unfair of you to ask.”

The argument apparently worked in the Illinois General Assembly which passed AT&T’s Get Off the Regulatory Hook Bill (Senate Bill 107) unanimously earlier this month.  The bill has now been sitting on Governor Quinn’s desk for more than two weeks, and AT&T is getting nervous.  Letters to the editor and AT&T-friendly editorials have started appearing in the Illinois press in a coordinated effort to beat the drum loud enough to get the governor’s attention to sign the bill unchanged.

Ameritech used to provide phone service to most of Illinois before being purchased by SBC Communications (later AT&T) in 1999.

Memories are short.  The Illinois Commerce Commission established ground rules for AT&T precisely because its predecessor provided abysmal service in the state.  As part of a hard-fought campaign to secure Ameritech, AT&T promised Illinois it would:

  • provide reliable landline service in rural Illinois at a fair price;
  • provide DSL broadband to at least 90 percent of Illinois customers;
  • recognize that landline service remains an essential utility for millions of residents, many of whom don’t have the option of switching to another provider.

That was then, this is now.

These days, those requirements are apparently too tough on AT&T.  The company complains Illinois residents can switch to Comcast phone service (from the Worst Company in America 2010) or sign up for cell phone service from AT&T or a few other providers, assuming one has reception.  With all of this “competition,” AT&T argues there is no reason to continue regulating the company’s landline services, especially in rural areas AT&T could probably do without anyway.

Illinois is just the latest stop on AT&T’s big budget deregulation traveling circus, starring high-paid lobbyists and astroturf friends, all coordinating to unshackle their benefactor from pesky regulations.

The state’s legislature is evidently a million miles away from its fellow midwestern states who have been chauffeured down AT&T’s Promise Avenue before, only to discover it quickly became a one-way toll road for consumers.  Ask Wisconsin.

AT&T’s Message — Less is more.

AT&T routinely promises less regulation will magically open the door for its much-coveted U-verse platform.  Every elected official would love to claim he or she brought much-needed cable competition to their district, so promises of telco-TV are quite an incentive for legislators.  The formula is simple — you deregulate us and we’ll bring more U-verse deployment to your state.

Illinois State Senator Michael Bond (D-31st District)

Politicians trip over one another running to the nearest microphone over promises like that.

“This legislation is the key to opening up investment in the telecommunications industry in Illinois,” said state Sen. Michael Bond. “By modernizing our system, we are showing providers that we are worthy of their investment.”

But hasn’t AT&T already made a trip to that well before?  Last June, AT&T issued a press release crediting deregulation undertaken in 2007 for making U-verse expansion possible in Illinois:

AT&T U-verse is being expanded in Illinois thanks to legislation passed in 2007 and supported by State Senators Larry Bomke and Bill Brady and State Representatives Raymond Poe, Rich Brauer, Robert Flider and Bill Mitchell. The Cable and Video Competition Law provides an environment that encourages new video providers, such as AT&T Illinois, to invest in Illinois to compete against incumbent cable providers.

What will AT&T want next to finish U-verse deployment in Illinois – tax-free status?

That U-verse was designed to save AT&T’s landline business from a torrent of disconnect requests always gets missed by elected officials.  Basic landline service over copper wire is a dying business.  If AT&T doesn’t deploy U-verse, its ultimate destiny as a landline provider will be the horse and buggy industry of the 21st century.  Regulators need not throw away valuable consumer protections to protect a multi-billion dollar company already well-aware of what it needs to accomplish to stay profitable.

What consumers end up with — Less service for more money.

Despite the flowery rhetoric that competition is breaking out all over Illinois, 78 percent of state residents continue to rely on landline telephone service. That numbers 6.5 million consumers. Among the well-represented holdouts are fixed income seniors, and for most of them, a $200 monthly deluxe triple-play package of services is out of the question.

For customers that cannot afford higher rates, the Illinois Citizens Utility Board fought for and won a three year rate freeze and reprieve for AT&T’s budget-minded Consumer’s Choice telephone packages that were slated to be discontinued.  These packages don’t bundle unneeded calling features or extra services, instead providing affordable basic telephone service.  But after three years, AT&T can cancel these packages and raise prices at will, particularly in rural areas where competition is minimal to non-existent.  State oversight of AT&T is also history, leaving little recourse for consumers who suffer through poor service or AT&T’s legendary billing nightmares.

Supporters also promoted the deregulation legislation as a “jobs bill” — a ludicrous contention for legislation that contains no section pertaining to jobs.  Perhaps they meant more jobs for AT&T’s lobbying crew.  In fact, landline phone companies like AT&T are slashing jobs by the tens of thousands and will likely continue to do so.

Illinois Senate Bill 107 allows AT&T to set the stage to follow Verizon’s example — exiting rural areas, leaving the bulk of their investments and potential profits in large cities like Chicago.

The State Journal-Register wrote a shortsighted editorial supporting the proposed deregulation bill

Newspaper editorials like this one in the State Journal-Register in Springfield mean well but are breathtakingly short-sighted.  The editorial staff gushes about the benefits U-verse will bring Springfield, without any evidence U-verse will actually be universally available in the community anytime soon:

On a less philosophical level, we believe the new telecom law will be beneficial to most Illinois consumers because it should promote competition for household cable TV, Internet and phone service. In markets like Springfield, it could allow AT&T and Comcast to go head-to-head throughout the city, not just in the few areas where AT&T’s U-verse service is now available. That’s what cable customers have been demanding for decades.

AT&T customers have learned not to hold their breath waiting.  Any regular visitor to the company’s own support forums will quickly discover customers frustrated by lack of availability, hit or miss service, and no coverage map.  One customer summed it up:

I have NEVER in my life had to fight so hard to spend money on something.
Not even my wife makes it this hard on me to get something.
I have NEVER in my life (aside from when I got my AT&T POTS service) had a company work so slowly to accomplish something to try and attract a perspective customer or keep a current customer.

But there’s more.  Had the Journal-Register picked up the phone and checked with their neighboring states, they would have learned U-verse is not the competitive nirvana it’s routinely promised to be.  In Wisconsin, rates for cable, broadband, and phone service continue to increase, not decrease.  Most of the savings built into introductory packages for new customers expire after one year, and some providers limit the discounts to once per household.  That means once your new customer discount package expires, you may never get it again.  Then it’s a lifetime of ever-increasing pricing.

AT&T-backed bills also never require the company to completely wire every community for its U-verse service.  The company can bypass neighborhoods, towns and villages, or buildings it feels are not cost-effective to serve.  There are states that deregulated AT&T to their specifications and years later, communities are still waiting for service to reach their areas.  Illinois will be no different, and if AT&T determines U-verse isn’t worth the investment in large swaths of southern Illinois, so be it.

The Citizens Utility Board is correct when it predicts most of the investment will end up in Chicago, even at the expense of other parts of the state.  AT&T always follows the money.

AT&T’s Astroturf Friends Join the Parade

You have to look closely to see the connection. Who really is behind ITP?

AT&T’s friends are also writing letters to the editor demanding action, without disclosing they are bought and paid for sock puppets.

Take the Illinois Technology Partnership, which claims to represent a grand union of consumer and private interests for the betterment of Illinois’ high tech future.  In reality, it’s yet another AT&T astroturf group that works against consumers.

Their claim:

The Illinois Technology Partnership is the Illinois-based project of Midwest Consumers for Choice and Competition, a non-profit organization of individual consumers interested in technology, broadband, and telecommunication issues with state projects throughout the Midwest region.  ITP brings together industry experts, thought leaders, and Illinois consumers to foster an environment that will encourage emerging technologies, jobs, and investment, and spur economic growth on the state and local level.

Reality Check:

Both ITP and the ironically-named “Midwest Consumers for Choice and Competition” are both creatures of AT&T.  Thad Nation, behind all of these groups, invents AT&T-supported astroturf campaigns in various states where the company delivers service.  Over the past few years, Nation has cooked up TV4Us, Wired Wisconsin and Technology for Ohio’s Tomorrow, among others.  But his real day job is the founder and senior partner at Nation Consulting, a politically-connected lobbying firm:

At Nation Consulting, Nation focuses on assisting corporate clients with strategic planning in government and public relations, and managing crisis communications.

Our team has worked on the “inside” of the offices of Governors, Congressional members, and state agencies. We’ve worked at every level of government, and we have the relationships necessary to help you navigate state and federal bureaucracies to accomplish your goals. We know how government works – and we know what government can do for you.

Getting government officials or bodies to do what you want isn’t easy. Government is inherently a slow, bureaucratic entity. When you want elected or appointed officials to change policy, you need a comprehensive plan – and the resources, relationships and quick-thinking to implement that plan.

We come to you with decades of experience in advocacy, moving legislators and engaging state agency leaders to action. Let us help you build and drive an aggressive advocacy agenda.

Regardless of your industry, the internet has a role to play in achieving your public relations goals – and we have the experience and the expertise to implement a plan suited to your needs. Whether you need to effectively use social networking sites, manage a blog, conduct email campaigns or use Web 2.0 tools, Nation Consulting can help you maximize your online presence in a way that is both cost-effective and beneficial to your business or organization.

Ordinary consumers can’t afford Nation Consulting’s services so he doesn’t work for them.

As usual, AT&T’s connections don’t end there.  Many of the “partners” listed on ITP’s website are themselves also backed by AT&T — the Illinois State Black Chamber of Commerce and Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce just two examples.  Several of ITP’s partners follow Nation’s efforts wherever he goes, also ending up affiliated with his other astroturf projects.

A letter to the editor appearing in The Daily Herald signed by Lindsay Mosher, executive director of ITP, applauds the state legislature for passing AT&T’s custom-crafted deregulation bill:

This legislation will spur significant private investment, increase broadband access and create jobs for Illinois residents at no cost to taxpayers.

The legislature deserves our thanks for taking this step.

Now it’s up to Governor Quinn to finish the job and sign the bill without changes, as some have suggested.

As is too often the case, readers are done a disservice when a newspaper prints a self-interested letter to the editor or guest editorial without fully disclosing who is behind it.  Mosher could have signed her letter “AT&T lobbyist” and been more honest.  In fact, in addition to her position at ITP, she’s also employed by another Chicago lobbying firm — Resolute Consulting.  It specializes in issue advocacy as well, and doesn’t work for free.

AT&T spends an enormous amount of money carefully crafting its issues advocacy campaigns designed to convince consumers they are representing your best interests.  Wouldn’t using all this money to lower your phone bill and provide better broadband service be a better allocation of resources if, as AT&T claims, this is all to benefit consumers?

Here’s another question — if an individual consumer in western New York can expose all of these incestuous ties between supposedly grassroots consumer groups and the telecom companies and interests that fund them, why can’t the news media in Illinois?  If they only followed the money, the real story about Senate Bill 107 could have been told before it sailed through the legislature unopposed.

Now, the only chance Illinois consumers have is if Governor Quinn loses the bill.

Dollar-A-Holler Advocacy In Action: The New York Times Prints Industry-Backed Letters Opposing Net Neutrality

Reach Out and Touch Someone... With Cash

Stop the Cap! readers Terry and Scott write to let us know it was an Astroturf weekend in the pages of the New York Times‘ ‘Letters to the Editor’ section as two traditional allies in big telecom’s fight against Net Neutrality and broadband regulation blasted the newspaper’s recent pro-FCC regulatory authority editorial.

Mike Wendy, vice president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a disingenuously-named telephone and cable-backed front group, was first up, proclaiming the bipartisanship of the glorious Telecommunications Act of 1996 which made unregulated broadband’s growth possible:

Over the last five years alone, American companies — incentivized by the absence of Internet regulation — have invested more than half a trillion dollars to build broadband infrastructure. Consequently, this has exploded broadband choice and access, boosting jobs, productivity and commerce, as well as other important societal-civic benefits, for more than 90 percent of America. This growth will continue, fostered by vibrant competition among cable, wireless, wire line and other evolving means.

It is understandable that you ignore the second fact: it reveals an inconvenient truth. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which put Internet services outside of 75-year-old telephone regulations, was passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by a Democratic president, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan manner. The Bush-era regulatory changes, which ensure that Internet services get treated in accord with the law, only followed through on the pro-deregulatory, pro-marketplace intent of the law.

Speaking of inconvenient truths, it took the newspaper’s editors to fully disclose that “the writer is vice president of […] a think tank that takes support from the information technology, telecom, wireless, media, cable and content industries.”  Kudos to the Times for disclosing that — too often such hackery goes unchallenged, without informing readers who is paying for it.

In the case of P&F, it’s all our favorites:

Translation: We don't represent consumers

  • AT&T
  • Comcast Corporation
  • Cox Enterprises
  • National Cable & Telecommunications Association
  • Time Warner Cable
  • T-Mobile
  • USTelecom – The Broadband Association
  • Verizon Communications

Of course, those big dollar amounts representing industry investments ignores the even bigger profits reaped from those investments, particularly in barely-competitive broadband.  Nobody in the broadband industry is lining up for a bailout, that’s for certain.

As to the group’s assertion that bipartisan bliss made telecom deregulation all worthwhile, the only thing they managed to prove is that both political parties are ready and willing to be suckered into believing the broken promises of lower pricing and better service for their constituents (helped along with a generous campaign contribution to ease any disappointment later on.)

President Clinton, who signed the Act, considers it one of his mistakes after he saw the results.

Just days after the governor of Arizona signed a highly controversial border enforcement measure into law, LULAC labels Net Neutrality opposition its "top news story." Is this a group that represents the real interests of America's Latino community, or that of its backers AT&T and Verizon?

Next up is a letter from Brent A. Wilkes, Executive Director, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).  He doesn’t like Net Neutrality either, and regurgitates familiar industry talking points our readers can recite in their sleep:

We’ve seen more than $200 billion invested in broadband networks — more private investment than anywhere in the world — and the Internet in the United States has been an unquestioned success.

Second, network neutrality regulations are largely a solution in search of a problem. The F.C.C. adopted “Open Internet” principles in 2005. Since then, there have been only a few alleged breaches that were quickly resolved under this framework.

On the other hand, net neutrality regulations could shield the companies that make billions in profits from the Internet — search engines and other providers — from contributing toward the $350 billion in investment broadband upgrades needed to handle bandwidth demands, which double every two years. That would shift these bandwidth costs exclusively — 100 percent — onto consumers and could thereby deter broadband adoption in Latino and other communities.

Net neutrality could also bar broadband providers from managing, in a nondiscriminatory manner, the few bandwidth-hogging applications and services that can consume nearly all of a neighborhood’s bandwidth. If and when critics identify a real problem, Congress should quickly grant the F.C.C. the express authority to fix it.

Now why would a Latino interest group be so ready and willing to carry the industry’s water in the pages of the New York Times?  Whenever AT&T and Verizon have a public policy concern, LULAC is sure to follow.  For years, this group has been a part of more than a few industry-backed astroturf campaigns designed to trick consumers into buying their corporate agenda.  For disadvantaged Latino communities already hard hit with an ever-expanding price tag for telecommunications services, it’s shameful to see a group openly advocating an agenda that extracts more money from consumers’ wallets.

LULAC has received millions in support from General Motors, AT&T and Verizon

LULAC was there as a card-carrying member of both TV4Us and Consumers for Cable Choice, front groups promising consumers in states served by AT&T that statewide video franchises would lower their cable bills.  LULAC was front and center in the cheerleading section.  Only Latino Wisconsins, along with everyone else, got rate increases instead.  Thanks, LULAC!

Telecom analyst Bruce Kushnick tears the lid off:

This “deception … is about playing on America’s caring about the public interest and about minorities getting a fair shake,” Kushnick says . Worse, “these organizations have very deep-pocketed funders with lobbying groups, PR firms and others to get them the loudest ‘volume’ in the media or access to regulators and legislators. They often overwhelm the message of independent consumer groups.”

LULAC was there in states like New Jersey when Verizon was looking for its own statewide franchises.  To not offer them, LULAC suggested, would harm Latino communities across the region.  Actually, for many of them, the fact their cable and phone bills continue to march relentlessly higher actually hurts more.

The group is an equal opportunity sellout.  During discussions about XM Radio and Sirius merging, LULAC was ready with a letter of support for the merger.  Because when you think about pressing concerns for today’s Latino community, dwelling on the merger of two satellite radio services is a real front burner issue.

When Verizon wanted to acquire Alltel, guess what group was there to cheer the deal on:

LULAC supports this merger because the networks of the two companies are largely complementary. That means that when the merger is complete, even more consumers will enjoy the innovations Verizon Wireless plans to bring to market in years to come.

It’s getting hard to find a cause célèbre for AT&T or Verizon where LULAC doesn’t have their back.

But why?

Money, of course.

AT&T and Verizon have both donated millions of dollars over the years to LULAC.  General Motors, which had a direct interest in the outcome of the XM/Sirius merger is a donor as well.

Don’t fall for hackery.  Net Neutrality protects consumer interests and guarantees online freedom, something especially important as the forthcoming immigration reform debate begins anew.  That’s an issue Latinos are concerned with.  Too bad those issues don’t generate multi-million dollar contributions, which might get groups like LULAC to stop advocating against the interests of their own members.

Astroturf Snow Job: Telecom Industry Promised ‘Big Savings’ For Wisconsin — They Got A 21% Average Rate Hike Instead

Dick Armey, head of FreedomWorks, a notorious industry-backed astroturf group, was a big proponent of Wisconsin's "statewide video franchise" bill pushed by AT&T

Wisconsin residents, in 2007 you were promised more competition, lower prices, and better service from your pay television and broadband provider.  Two years later, two things are certain:

  1. The Wisconsin Video Competition Act was didn’t exactly deliver what was promised to consumers by those pushing the legislation, but paid off handsomely for the one company lobbying the hardest for its passage — AT&T.
  2. You had a lower bill in 2007 than you now have in 2009.

A new audit released by the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau exposes the truth AT&T’s astroturfing friends never wanted you to know: despite the passage of a new law in December 2007 that promised increased competition and lower rates, the average basic cable rate in Wisconsin actually increased an average of 21 percent over the past two years.

The Bureau analyzed ten providers’ monthly charges for basic and expanded basic service in 17 Wisconsin municipalities at two points in time—July 2007 and July 2009—using data reported to us by the providers. Over this two-year period, charges for basic service increased an average of 21.2 percent, and charges for expanded basic service increased an average of 11.5 percent. The reported data do not suggest that competition has had a substantial effect in reducing either basic or expanded basic video service charges or in slowing their rates of growth during the period we reviewed.

Wisconsin consumers were promised something very different.  So just how did Wisconsin get snookered into passing legislation that was supposed to help consumers, but in reality just helped AT&T?

Dick Armey, chairman of FreedomWorks, an industry-backed astroturf group that heavily promoted the bill, emphatically promised the Competition Act would bring prices down.  On November 19, 2007 Armey wrote:

The Wisconsin Video Competition Act would allow consumers to take advantage of new technologies by streamlining the franchise application process for potential providers. When companies compete to provide service, consumers win through more choices, lower prices and better service.

Unfortunately for consumers, the Video Competition Act was little more than a custom-written giveaway to AT&T.  From the bill’s earliest draft language crafted by lobbyists working with legislative aides, to the big budget sales job employing 15 lobbyists and a major media budget, AT&T ran the show from start to finish according to Madison’s Capital Times newspaper.

TV4US counts AT&T among its corporate sponsors

TV4US (also known as WeWantChoice.com), an AT&T-supported astroturf group, ran television ads around Wisconsin promoting the bill.  In May 2007 the group sent every state legislator binders filled with what it claimed were the names of their constituents who wanted “an end to the cable monopoly” and competitive choice.  As The Center for Media & Democracy discovered, several people named, including two state lawmakers, didn’t support the bill and hadn’t given permission for their names to be included.

[flv]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/TV4US Ad Wisconsin.mp4[/flv]

TV4US ran this ad across Wisconsin in 2007, promoting “cable competition.”

TV4US’ primary press contact Lizanne Sadlier just also happened to be employed by lobbying firm Fleishman-Hillard, which “has built its reputation by using strategic communications to deliver what its clients value most: meaningful, positive, and measurable impact on the performance of their organizations,” according to a press release from the group.

Fleishman-Hillard and AT&T are well acquainted with each other.  In fact, the PR firm was instrumental in rebranding the phone company as “the new AT&T” after the SBC-AT&T merger.  To this day, AT&T has several company bloggers actually employed by Fleishman-Hillard.

In March of 2007, the Wisconsin Merchants Federation turned up at a state hearing about the Competition Act. This struck several observers as odd, considering the WMF primarily concerns itself with retail store tax policies and strengthening retail theft laws. The WMF seemed well-prepared to articulate the proposed law’s benefits, which included, according to them:

  • increased competition in the video entertainment business;
  • creation of good-paying jobs;
  • bring (literally) hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investment to our state.

PR Watch wanted to know exactly what prompted the WMF to not only testify about a non-issue for retail stores, but also who wanted the group to get involved, and who exactly belongs to the WMF.

WMF’s David Storey told PR Watch that his group sees AB 207 / SB 107 as an economic development issue. “Where consumers have choices, not only are the consumers served, but the economy in general is served. The economy is made stronger,” he explained. “And this is all about consumer choice in the video entertainment field.”

Storey said that no particular member had asked WMF to support AB 207 / SB 107, but that he was personally interested in the issue, as the former Deputy Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce. Asked for a list of WMF members, Storey responded that one was not available, but that information would hopefully be added to the WMF website in the future.

One thing that is clear is that many of WMF’s partners in lobbying for AB 207 / SB 107 have ties to the telecom industry. The Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, which is a member of the Wisconsin Video Choice Coalition, has received funding from AT&T and from SBC Wisconsin, which is now part of AT&T. The group also offers “discounts on assistive devices for the telephone such as volume amplifiers from the AT&T Special Needs Center.” Another Wisconsin Video Choice Coalition member, the Wisconsin Technology Council, lists AT&T among its major sponsors. Fellow coalition member Women Impacting Public Policy is a Washington DC based group that receives funding from AT&T and Verizon, among other corporate sponsors.

[flv]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Press event promoting Wisconsin bill Aug 2007.flv[/flv]

In August 2007, WMF turned up at a press event with other bill supporters to promote the results of a poll conducted by the Mellman Group, which isn’t a respected polling firm but rather a Washington, DC public relations firm that “develops effective communications strategies that lead people to choose our client’s product or service, join their organization, hold their opinion, or vote as we would like.” [1] (13 minutes, video begins at ten second mark)

In short, no matter where consumers turned during the push for the Wisconsin Video Competition Act, that big AT&T logo was always somewhere in sight.

Before the legislation was passed, some were warning Wisconsin the dog and pony astroturf show wasn’t actually working for the best interests of Wisconsin consumers, but were instead looking out for the best interests of AT&T.  Charles Uphoff is chair of the Fitchburg Broadband Telecommunications Commission, and wrote this back in 2007:

Lobbyists for telecommunications giant AT&T have been pressuring Wisconsin legislators to pass sweeping changes in the laws regulating cable TV with a million-dollar media campaign and behind the scenes arm-twisting that would make Karl Rove blush.

Under the guise of promoting increased consumer choice, lower cable rates and high-paying union jobs, AT&T is trying to steamroller bills that would prohibit any meaningful regulation of video service rates; eliminate funding for public access, educational and government channels; and effectively guarantee statewide franchises for the telecom giant in perpetuity.

Among the more astonishing features of this dubious legislation is a provision that specifically prohibits the state or local municipalities from reviewing franchise transfers. While initial applicants would have to establish their legal, financial and technical qualifications to obtain a statewide franchise, once granted, statewide franchises can be literally transferred to anyone — even politicians. Video franchise holders wouldn’t even have to inform the affected communities until 10 days after the transfer had been completed.


So how about the claim being made in the TV ads that cable rates have gone up 246 percent and the “Video Competition Act” would increase choice and save consumer millions? It sure sounds good, but these assertions are, at best, misleading. In the city of Fitchburg, for example, the basic cable rate has risen less than 6 percent over the past 10 years and is currently at $8.19 a month. Admittedly, premium packages have risen much more sharply, largely driven by the cost of content providers like the NFL Network, MTV and ESPN, but AT&T would be facing the same kind of costs if they want to include these offerings.

So if you are expecting whopping decreases in your cable TV bills if this legislation passes, don’t hold your breath. In fact, the ability of municipalities or the state to even regulate basic cable rates would be gone.

What’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t an isolated incident. Wholesale deregulation of the video services industry under the guise of fostering competition is being pushed in legislatures all across the country, backed by big money and conservative ideologues like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican whose right-wing “think-tank” has been pushing this legislation since before it had a bill number. Weeks before most members of the Wisconsin Legislature had even seen the bill, Armey’s Freedom Works Foundation was trying to line up sponsors. Major contributors to Dick Armey’s cause include AT&T, Verizon and Exxon-Mobile.

Sadly, the recent trend in video services and telecommunications has been toward increasing the concentration of ownership and control of the media, resulting in fewer consumer choices and less competition, not only in terms of price, but also in terms of ideas. The opinions expressed here are strictly my own, but it seems to me that in the arena where competition is most important to our democracy and our future, the competition of ideas, the net effect of these bills will be to decrease competition through the elimination of public access as a vehicle for information, dialogue and discussion of things that matter to our communities.

Despite playing fast and loose with the facts, the astroturf groups, aided by AT&T’s generous campaign contributions to Wisconsin state legislators helped grease the way towards passage of the Video Competition Act, which was signed into law in December 2007.

But rate increases for consumers aren’t the only problem impacting Wisconsin residents.  Collateral damage for those interested in public affairs television programming is now also becoming apparent.

One of the biggest opponents of the statewide video franchising law has been the Wisconsin Association of PEG Channels (WAPC).  “PEG” stands for public access, educational, and government access channels found on virtually every cable system in the country.  These non-profit channels are provided in the public interest to give subscribers access to customer-produced video programming, local government public meetings and hearings, and educational programming from local schools and universities.  They are traditionally financed by the cable system as part of their franchise agreement.  In return for tearing up local streets and yards, systems give something back to the community by making room for these public access channels, and often also provide equipment and training to assist in program production and distribution.

The Video Competition Act was no friend to PEG channels.  By moving to statewide video franchise agreements, local communities no longer had much say over their public access channels, and the bill’s passage quickly provided a convenient opportunity to bury PEG channels, kill their funding, or outright renege on local agreements.

[flv]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Hunting PEG Channels on U-verse.mp4[/flv]

AT&T’s U-verse doesn’t make it easy for video customers to find PEG channels.  In Wisconsin, the channels are housed on a website that appears on screen on channel 99, the equivalent of TV Channel Siberia for the remote control channel surfer.  From there, consumers have to navigate a series of menus on their remote control to find the right channel.  Mike Ryan, director of West Bend Community Television, discovers just how ponderous this procedure is, even for those dedicated to finding his channel.

In the case of Charter Cable, they’ve managed to go one step further and help destroy one city’s public access channels.

Funding for the Wausau Area Access Channels had been provided in part by the franchise agreement between the City of Wausau and local cable provider Charter Communications. While Wausau Access Channels served the greater Wausau area, only the City of Wausau franchise agreement provided any funding.

When the state passed the Competition Act replacing local franchise agreements with a standard state wide franchise, Wausau PEG support fees were eliminated after a three year sunset. That sunset would occur December 31, 2010. The City of Wausau has not received any PEG support fees from Charter Communication during the three year sunset period.

Apparently unwilling to meet even a three year commitment, Charter Cable’s non-payment led Wausau mayor Jim Tipple to announce Monday that the city would not continue to fund the station in 2010 because of budget constraints.

“We realize this is a tough decision, not only for the city of Wausau but for the entire community,” Tipple said.

The City of Wausau is pursuing legal remedies against Charter. PEG fee revenue had funded 60% of the station’s annual budget of $100,000.

“The City does not want the channels to go dark, but it can no longer fund them alone,” said John Jordan, Wausau Access Coordinator.

“We are stunned to hear about the closure of the Wausau community channels. It is hard to believe that residents of Wausau will no longer be able to see and participate in community television. We warned this could come with the passage of the Video Competition Act. We just didn’t expect it quite this soon,” said Mary Cardona, WAPC Executive Director.

On January 1, 2011, more stations will be in Wausau’s position. On that date, all dedicated PEG fees end as a result of the passage of the Video Competition Act.

[flv]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSAW-WAOW Wausau Public Access Cut 12-21-09.flv[/flv]

WSAW & WAOW-TV, both in Wausau, Wisconsin headlined their newscasts with news that the community’s public access channels were on the chopping block. Loud Volume Alert (4 minutes)

The Cable Consumer Repair Bill (AB606) recently introduced by Representative Gary Hebl (D – Sun Prairie) could resolve serious problems with the Video Competition Act that took effect in January 2008. Since then, cable companies and AT&T have moved community channels to out of the way locations on the line-up, subjected the channels to interference problems, imposed transmission equipment costs, and withdrawn a commitment to provide dedicated revenue for public, education, and government access stations.

Of course, the industry players don’t like it one bit.  “Wired Wisconsin,” a non-profit group claiming to seek cutting edge broadband technology for Wisconsin, who unsurprisingly counts AT&T as a “partner,” thinks Hebl’s bill will gut the Competition Act.

“Even though the VCA was passed less than two years ago, we’ve already seen a great deal of progress under the bill.  It’s generated real competition, helped improve prices, created hundreds of new jobs, spurred millions in investment in infrastructure, improved customer service and expanded consumers’ access to new video providers, services and features all across the state,” said Wired Wisconsin’s executive director Thad Nation.

The state’s audit of cable pricing would seem to belie Nation’s views. That he holds them should come as no surprise.  After all, Nation is the former executive director of TV4US, the AT&T-backed astroturf effort that helped enact the law Nation seeks to defend.

“On balance, the law hasn’t been good for consumers but has been very good for the companies that wanted it. Two years from now, I don’t think you will be able to say that consumers saved a lot of money if any at all,” Barry Orton, a telecommunications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Has the bill brought about any savings for Wisconsin consumers?

“We haven’t seen it. I think the short answer is ‘no,’ ” said Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, which represents 582 local governments.

“I think the public relations effort of AT&T and others was remarkable in convincing state legislators that this law would bring about all kinds of competition, and that consumers would benefit from it. But that hasn’t been the case,” Witynski added.

Indeed, with additional rate increases announced this week by AT&T’s U-verse, the much-heralded savings promised by AT&T and its various astroturf elements have become only more elusive for the hard-hit consumer struggling through ongoing economic challenges.  Those challenges aren’t exactly the same for AT&T, which increased its dividend payment to stockholders and has plenty left over to continue astroturfing its way to statewide video franchises in other states it serves.

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