Write the Rules and Win the Game: A tale of treachery

A man from Eau Claire called this week. He was suspicious by a post card that came in the mail. “AT&T wants me to ask my senator for competition in cable. Don’t they really want something else?” He was looking for direction.

Here is what’s behind the stories being spun.

When you write the rules, you win the game. This week in the Senate, the fight will be over the rules governing the delivery of cable TV, internet, and telephone services for the foreseeable future. What kind of companies will get to compete? What rights will consumers have? Will local government have a say? At stake are billions of dollars.

The battle is over “video franchising”, a bill that would change the way cable and video companies operate. According to news stories, the bill was written under the supervision of AT&T attorneys in Washington DC., and has been introduced in numerous other states across the country.

What are some of the rules that AT&T wants?
 No meaningful community input.
 Minimal standards for quality.
 No future provisions for community access television.
 Loopholes to avoid serving low income and rural communities.
 Fewer consumer protections.
 No provisions for service to schools or other public buildings.

The bill as written, gives AT&T the power to do just about anything is wants, without consequences or the public having a say. This is the ‘competition’ AT&T advertises on television and in direct mail across the state.

The bill passed the Assembly this spring on the ‘fast track’ and last week passed the Joint Finance Committee on a 13-3 vote. As one senator described it “This is a bread and butter bill.”

Not every state meekly surrendered to AT&T. Illinois passed a bill with real teeth including very specific consumer protection standards; requirements to bring services to 90 percent of the state; standards for quality, and protection for community access television. The Illinois model requires AT&T and cable companies to follow the same local government rules as other companies, prohibits discrimination against poor neighborhoods, and provides penalties for noncompliance.

When faced with the political will to protect consumers and the public’s interest, AT&T agreed to the changes. The Chicago Tribune called the agreement “that rare legislative accomplishment that ushers in competition, protects consumers, and is fair to both phone and cable companies.”

This week I will offer the Illinois model as a substitute amendment on the floor of the Senate. We need the same political will here in Wisconsin. And we need to put protections into law because cable companies and AT&T cannot be trusted.

Lobbyists for AT&T told me that they want to continue to offer “charity” and provide service to public places like fire and police departments and schools but they don’t want the requirement in law. In Michigan, however, when providing public cable services became optional the cables were cut to police departments, fire stations and local government. And there was no recourse.

That is why who writes the rules makes a difference.