AT&T and Cable Competition: Here is The Rest of the Story

"AT&T has us in their crosshairs!" my staff member stated as he got off the phone.

The phones started ringing in my office at 9:15 p.m. and quit about 10:30 p.m. AT&T is running commercials in Eau Claire asking people to call their legislators.

In addition, people from Arcadia to Tomah have signed letters written by AT&T that read like this: Everyday that Wisconsin families are denied a real choice to cable TV, they are forced to pay an extra 28% to 42% for cable. Please work to bring real choice to WI. Please oppose any efforts that would make us wait longer for relief from skyrocketing bills.

The argument is that we will have lower cable bills if we have more than one company competing. Sounds good right?

But here’s the rest of the story.

The proposed cable bill would take away cities’ ability to license cable companies and instead would create a state-wide license. This would make it faster and cheaper for AT&T to move into the cable business. Cable companies benefit because the bill would eliminate any obligations companies have now to communities – including agreements to fund cable at schools, distance learning and community television stations.

Our community television stations in Eau Claire and Whitehall would likely be lost.

What are the real savings to consumers? The FCC studied cable rates in communities with and without competition and found the average price for ‘basic plus expanded’ might drop $7.39 a month. Some communities – Milwaukee and Madison – would see competition and perhaps some cost savings.

But we will gain nothing in Western Wisconsin for many years – and then only in Eau Claire. Lobbyists have told our office that AT&T isn’t likely to go into Eau Claire for seven years.

Most of our communities are not going to see any change in prices. Most of our district does not have cable TV, nor do we have AT&T phone service. There is virtually no chance that AT&T will ever come into the smaller towns and rural areas. The technology divide between cities and rural areas will continue to grow.

The real heroes bringing technology to rural areas are the rural telephone cooperatives. But nothing in the bill helps them. The bill forbids the state from regulating AT&T and the big cable companies. The only time the state can regulate is to set rules for a new cable provider (like our cooperatives). AT&T is exempt. Sounds like the opposite of competition to me.

Lots of money is being spread around: television and radio ads; donations to groups. The plan is what I call "Astroturf" organizing – instead of genuine grassroots organizing.

Here is how it works: before the AT&T television advertising started, our office had contact with 164 people opposed to the bill and 5 people in favor. People were concerned about losing the community television stations, losing local control and losing the long distance learning in schools.

Now, 47 lobbyists are in the capitol working on the bill. And the AT&T work is impressive. Not only are the calls coming in to the office late in the evening, but last Friday we received two slick binders with 711 letters written by AT&T and signed by residents responding to the advertising.

But do these people know that Madison and Milwaukee might see a small drop in cable prices, but Eau Claire would see nothing? And there is virtually no chance AT&T will make it to Blair or Pepin? Do people know we would give up our community television stations, our school long distance learning, and consumer protection laws that now apply to cable?

Making decisions that are right for the people is not always easy. Like most issues, there are two sides to this story. Finding the other side on this one has taken quite a bit of digging. We worked hard to understand the problems and share information with others. And we worked for and got a delay in the Senate vote - last week the Senate sent the bill to the Finance Committee for review.

It will take more hard work to fix the bill and make sure consumers, schools, local government and community television is protected. But I am committed to making sure that all voices are heard in Madison. Work I am grateful to have the opportunity to do.

Let me know your opinions! Call Black River Falls at (715) 284-1730; In Eau Claire at (715) 838-0448 or in Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free); or write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or email Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov.