Here we go again: there's a draft telephone deregulation bill being negotiated by the industry's players that is based on the one that nearly passed last year. No bill number or sponsor yet - this time they will keep their fingerprints off until the steamroller is fully up to speed. Stripping the Public service Commission's powers to regulate the adequacy of landline phone service wasn't a good idea for rural and elderly consumers last year, and it's not a good idea now.
The PR and lobbying campaign laying the groundwork has already started with statements from the usual industry sock-puppets like "Wired Wisconsin." Yesterday the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran dueling op-ed pieces: they asked me to argue against Steve Bass of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. Bass, who made his rep as former Speaker Scott Jensen's mouthpiece, found Wired Wisconsin's wild assertions of the legislation's potential "to create or retain about 50,000 jobs in Wisconsin" quite convincing.
My response is here. A sample:
What's at stake? This year's bill probably will eliminate telephone providers' obligations to provide service to all areas of Wisconsin. The companies won't have to report profits and expenses to the PSC, which no longer would control rates or the adequacy of phone service and facilities. Market forces will be consumers' only protection; unhappy landline users would need to switch to a cable-based or cellular service.
But many rural areas of Wisconsin with spotty cellular service and no cable don't have affordable alternatives. And many older customers will not consider an unfamiliar technology; these landline users still need the PSC's legal protection.
Opposing last year's bill, Nino Amato, president of the Wisconsin Coalition of Aging Groups, said: "There are still 3 million customers in Wisconsin who use wired phone services, and we simply cannot abandon them."
...I suppose Grandma could just get a Blackberry and Wisconsin farmers could always do their business via the U.S. Postal Service.
With all the wholesale unregulating of industry going on at the Wisconsin Legislature, this one may well get very little attention and pass quietly. Let's all keep our eyes open.
- Barry Orton