Telecommunications ad blitz is on, but is anyone listening?

INDIANAPOLIS — Some of the television commercials feature smiling faces — people presumably pleased that Hoosier lawmakers seem poised to deregulate the local phone service market and change the way companies are licensed to provide cable TV.

But another warns of dire consequences — of higher prices and service for only select neighborhoods — if the legislation passes.

The ads are part of a special-interest battle being fought across the state over Senate Bill 245 and House Bill 1279, both of which would deregulate telecommunications services.

Some lawmakers say that, so far, the commercials haven’t moved many constituents into action.

“With all the other major issues we’re considering here, I’m not sure that we’ve been overrun with telecom input,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

In fact, lawmakers said they’ve not received unusually large numbers of e-mails or calls about the issue — even though the Indiana Cable and Telecommunications Association, which represents traditional cable companies, has an ad urging viewers to contact the General Assembly to oppose the bills.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he has been shocked at how little contact he has had on the issue.

“I’m getting e-mails about it. But I’m still getting more e-mails about daylight-saving time than that,” Kenley said, referring to the contentious change the General Assembly approved last year.

Still, that cable-sponsored ad in particular has riled up some lawmakers, who say its tone is negative.

“I deplore them,” Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton, R-Columbus, said yesterday of negative issue ads. “I really have a serious problem with that.”

The tone of the other ads is more positive, primarily because they are paid for by companies or groups supporting the legislation. Garton, who voted for the Senate bill, said he hadn’t seen those ads.

The groups running newspaper ads or television commercials supporting the legislation are AT&T (formerly SBC and Ameritech), the U.S. Telecom Association and Freedom Works, a nonprofit, anti-regulation group whose long list of members includes phone companies.

Freedom Works backs eliminating the local franchise that companies must negotiate, community by community, to provide cable television services. Senate Bill 260 would eliminate that and provide a one-stop state franchise instead.

The phone companies support that because they are preparing to enter the cable market. Traditional cable companies, which have spent years negotiating local agreements, don’t.

“If we finally get a real choice to cable TV,” the Freedom Works ad states as someone who looks like a grandfather picks up his grandson, “there are going to be a whole lot of happy faces across Indiana.”

The ad is airing across the state and in the Louisville market, the organization said.

AT&T is running its own ad, but only in Central Indiana, said company spokesman Mike Marker. The U.S. Telecom Association has relied largely on newspaper ads.

Dave Menzer, utility campaign organizer for the Citizens Action Coalition, said he believes the ads have underscored for Hoosiers that the telecommunications issue is important.

But that doesn’t necessarily lead them to jump to support or oppose the bills, he said. He believes they realize the ads are sponsored by special interests.

“They look at the ads, hopefully with a grain of salt or with some skepticism,” Menzer said.

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said the ads aren’t clear enough to send a strong message to consumers.

“It’s just all these smiling people,” said Pierce, an ardent opponent of the bills. “They’re so confusing that no one outside the (legislative) process knows what they’re talking about.”

That’s a problem because it has created “a complete insider’s game,” Pierce said. “There are no external forces to urge legislators to think hard about consumers.”