Consumer advocates blast special interest telecommunications bill

Consumer advocates blast special interest telecommunications bill


CHICAGO—Members of industry, Martin Cohen, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, consumer advocates, and members of Congress gathered together recently to urge House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other members of Congress to oppose legislation that would eliminate consumer choice by stifling competition in the high-speed Internet and data-services market. The Tauzin-Dingell Bill (HR 1542) now pending before Congress would allow Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOC) like SBC/Ameritech to extend their monopoly over local phone service to the high-speed Internet market.

Congressman John Conyers (D-Detroit) was invited by industry and consumer advocates to address the anti-competitive aspects of the bill. Conyers is the ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee, which has opposed the measure on a bi-partisan basis because it undermines federal anti-trust law and the authority of the U.S. Department of Justice to protect consumer interests in telecommunications.

The stakes are especially high in Illinois where the Tauzin-Dingell bill threatens to undermine recent reforms included in Illinois’ new telecommunication law. Earlier this year, Illinois General Assembly passed a new pro-competition, pro-consumer law that is intended to give consumers choice of local telephone companies and improve SBC/Ameritech’s service. Not only would Tauzin-Dingell take away the gains brought about in this new law, but would eliminate the authority of the Illinois Commerce Commission to promote competition and protect consumer issues in high-speed Internet services.

“This year, Illinois passed landmark reforms to protect consumers and promote competition. The law strengthened the authority of the Illinois Commerce Commission to promote and protect consumers in telecommunications. This bill is an end run around the Illinois law, and Illinois citizens should be outraged,” said Gary Mack,

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director of Illinois Coalition for Competitive Telecommunications. “Our members of Congress need to understand how this bill hurts Illinois.”

“If SBC/Ameritech is allowed to enter the high-speed Internet market before opening local phone service to competition, Illinois consumers will lose the only leverage they have to force the SBC/Ameritech to improve local phone service and choice,” said Mack. “Consumers will then have to be satisfied with whatever service quality they get because of a lack of real choices. Tauzin-Dingell will put the critical development of our high-speed Internet infrastructure into the hands of a SBC/Ameritech. That means one company—that has experienced the worst phone service melt-down in memory—will control our state’s economic future. Competition means jobs and economic development. Monopoly leads to economic stagnation and lousy service. It’s as simple as that,” said Mack.

Conyers also presented a chart of fines paid by SBC/Ameritech to the state and federal governments for anti-competitive behavior. “SBC is fined every month for anti-competitive behavior while they spend millions of dollars in advertising saying there is competition in our state. Why would anyone want to loosen regulation on a company that treats fines as a cost of doing business?” said Mack.

House Speaker Hastert has said he will bring the bill to the House floor for a vote this month. The prospects for the bill are unclear, and many Illinois congressional members support the measure or are on the fence, even though the bill hurts Illinois interests.

“We’re not sure what will happen. The bill would never pass on its merits, but who knows in politics. SBC sure didn’t hire Bill Daley because of his experience in telecommunications,” said Mack.

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