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Thursday, May 7, 2009

The next telecom battles at the legislature

Posted by on Thu, May 7, 2009 at 4:55 PM

Dogged grassroots activism, organized by the City of Wilson's blogging public affairs manager Brian Bowman, Greensboro politico Jay Ovittore at StoptheCap.com, and a network of interested geeks on Twitter (#stopthecap), beat back the anti-muni broadband bill into study committees in both the state House and Senate this week.

But other broadband-related issues are still under consideration at the General Assembly, and for now, they're flying under the radar -- despite backing by the same telecom industry-friendly groups.

The first involves a statewide map that promises to show exactly where broadband Internet service is and isn't available. That map, expected within the next two weeks, is being put together by the industry-backed group Connected Nation and paid for by the industry. Will lawmakers be content to make policy based on information that's neither verifiable nor transparent?

The second is a bill AT&T is pushing for that would deregulate phone service in the state. After the House session concluded Wednesday evening, the House Ways & Means/Broadband Connectivity committee passed HB 1180, the "Consumer Choice and Investment Act," which addresses the shifting nature of the phone service market by allowing phone companies to raise rates and by removing "antiquated statutory and regulatory restrictions." The bill will go next to House Public Utilities.

The version (PDF) that passed Wednesday night contains changes co-sponsor and committee chair Rep. Bill Faison says add consumer protections that address the concerns of those who oppose it.

Analysis of those changes to come. Meanwhile, it's worth knowing who spoke to that committee in favor of the bill, changes and all:

The Institute for Policy Innovation, an anti-tax group out of Texas which opposes municipal broadband,

The American Consumer Institute, which has taken a position firmly in support of Time Warner Cable's bandwidth caps proposal.

and Americans for Prosperity, which organized the "tea parties" on tax day and rallied support for the anti-muni broadband bill.

Even defining phone service is getting trickier as companies like AT&T offer both traditional analog phone and digital voice-over-Internet-Protocol service as part of triple-play products designed to compete with similar bundled services from companies like Time Warner Cable.

Until Congress and the FCC weigh in definitively on these issues, we're likely to see this sort of policy hashed out at the state level, with lobbyists for the cable industry and the telephone companies jockeying to get the sweeter deal.

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