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“It's 'lobbyists gone wild' in the legislative telecommunication fight”
Dick Armey, majority leader for the Gingrich Gang that voters ousted from control in Washington in November, had some words of wisdom for the Tennessee legislature last week:
"Special interests are always looking for ways to benefit at the expense of the public at large."
Armey, who spearheaded enough special-interest legislation to make a robber baron blush, hasn't had an epiphany. He is talking the talk for one of America's biggest corporate entities, AT&T, as head of a Washington outfit called FreedomWorks.
But Armey is right, up to a point. When huge corporate interests converge on Capitol Hill in Nashville preaching about consumer protection, it's time to check your hip pocket.
Much of the public attention on this year's legislative session has focused on such weighty issues as television's Girls Gone Wild, the permissible length of catfish you can take home and what social clubs schoolchildren can join.
But there is a big, multimillion-dollar battle, with future billions of dollars at stake, going on behind the scenes. By some counts, more than 40 lobbyists are engaged in twisting the arms of 132 legislators. Advertising on both sides is saturating the airwaves and printed media, and big public relations firms are growing fat.
Both sides have seeded the playing field with so much misinformation and misdirection it's virtually impossible to tell if anyone is telling the truth. Even recent arrivals on the turnip truck can sense this is not about consumer protection.
The fight is about who gets to run the wires that bring Girls Gone Wild and other television programming into your home.
If you are a cable television company, such as Comcast, Time Warner or Charter, you must apply to one of Tennessee's 400-odd local government bodies for permission to peddle Girls Gone Wild, professional wrestling and American Idol.
Say you apply in Nashville. Metro may grant permission, but it will require that when you run wire into the lush Belle Meade market, you also must run it into the wilds of Antioch, Joelton and Bordeaux. That costs money. But nobody, absolutely nobody, can stop you from raising your rates
93 percent in a decade.
The same wire that lets you bring cable television into a house also provides the technology to bring broadband Internet service and, more recently, telephone service via the Internet.
Enter AT&T, the consumer champion that bought BellSouth for $86 billion in December. It wants to play, too.
But AT&T doesn't want to deal with the city mothers of every Podunk in Tennessee. It wants a statewide license to "compete" with Comcast, Time Warner and Charter through a process less complicated than buying a license plate.
Specifically, it wants a competitive business climate where nobody — nobody — can force it to run wire into lower Antioch, upper Joelton or every hollow in Cannon County if it doesn't want to. That's what the AT&T bill says. Providing service everywhere is called "build-out." Selecting wealthy markets is called "cherry-picking."
A few years ago when the legislature deregulated telephone service, BellSouth (now AT&T) screamed that its competitors would cherry-pick. They were right.
There are other goodies hidden in the bill. Among other things, the telephone company can plop a pole in your front yard without asking. Want to complain? Your city officials are authorized to listen but prohibited from levying any punitive action.
Some of the lobbyists retained for big bucks to push this have a hard time keeping a straight face when they talk about competition and lower consumer prices. And, of course, the legislation doesn't guarantee lower prices for television, the Internet or telephone service.
You just have to take the word of big corporations that they are here to save you money.
As soon as this is law, you can use your saved money to invest in a lovely, lighted, traffic-free bridge over the Cumberland I'm willing to sell you, cheap.