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Telcos Roll Out Astroturf Advocacy

Phone companies push astroturf-advocacy as they seek changes in telecommunications rules.
We are currently in the middle of what will likely emerge as a major rewrite of America telecommunications policy. As the cable TV companies and phone companies merge services in the world of Broadband "triple-play", tens of billions of dollars are at stake for the telecommunications business. Not surprisingly, as phone and cable companies jostle for telecommunications rules that suit their interests, there are intense lobbying efforts going on in Washington and state capitols. But in recent months there have also been reports of other less well-documented efforts by the phone companies.

In November David Lazarus of the San Francisco Chronicle (11/4/06) reported on a group called "Consumers for Cable Choice"; he noted that the group describes itself as "an alliance of consumer organizations across the nation committed to the development of a competitive, vibrant cable communications market". This all sounds good, consumers certainly need protection from the runaway bottom-line practices of the cable and phone companies. But Lazarus indicated that although Consumers For Cable Choice presents itself to policymakers as the voice of the people, it is in reality a "loose collection of regulatory gadflies and interests with ties to the telecom industry". Bob Johnson, the president of Consumers for Cable Choice, acknowledged that his organization received $75,000 in startup funds from Verizon and a similar amount from telco giant SBC. John Dunbar of the Center for Public Integrity described these efforts as "terribly deceptive... it's a sort of stealth public lobbying campaign" (National Journal's Technology Daily, "Bells Utilize Advocacy Groups" by David Hatch, 6/19/05). Lazarus also reported that Consumer For Cable Choice president Johnson is an Indiana lawyer who represents nearly two-dozen telecom firms.

In November the New Jersey chapter of Consumers for Cable Choice placed a job recruitment posting on CriagsList. The posting reads "New Jersey Consumers for Cable Choice is committed to bringing competition to consumers in the cable market... our goal is an open, diverse, pro-consumer market for cable subscribers that will stimulate price, choice and service options". The posting states that workers will receive $60 per shift to "ask people to sign letter to their legislators". Respondents to this posting could easily erroneously believe they are doing legitimate advocacy work of behalf of the public interest; and not, as they really are, doing advocacy work on behalf of the telcos at a time when the companies are pushing for telecommunications policies that do not well serve the public interest.

In another news report, Jeff Pillets writing for New Jersey's The Record reports ("Verizon Campaign Raises Questions, 1/24/06) that in the fall the mayor of the town of Red Bank was surprised to find dozens of unsigned letters advocating for cable choice pouring into his office. When the mayor investigated the source of these letters he discovered that more than half of the two hundred letters he had received came from non-existent addresses; and that residents at legitimate address said they had no knowledge of the letters. Pillets reports that the mayor "was stunned, who would be irresponsible enough to send out letters in someone else's name without their permission?"

So where does the public interest really lie in this issue? The argument put forward by the telcos in their astroturf "grassroots" masquerade is that less regulation - including an end to local "franchises" - will lead to greater competition and reduced rates for consumers. But the telcos do not favor genuine competition. Testifying on November 9th 2005 before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Gene Kimmelman of the Consumers Union - a national consumer advocacy organization that does not accept funding from any industry - argued that consumers would be best served by the entrance of "new or alternative market players that offer voice, video and data services widely available from cable, telephone or any other delivery system". This could happen through the introduction of municipal or publicly owned Broadband or WiFi services of the kind soon to be active in Philadelphia. Competition of this kind could place real checks on the runaway phone and cable TV pricing, and ensure the public interest is forefront in the creation and operation of our telecommunications infrastructure. However, around the country extensive efforts have been made by the telcos, their lobbyists, and their political allies to outlaw this kind of public competition.