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Success! How Progressives Stalled the Deregulation Agenda of Greedy Telecoms and ALEC

A coalition of unions, national and community groups managed to hit the trifecta--beating ALEC-backed deregulation bills in three states.

Photo Credit: CWA 1298, Sierra Club, Working Families & AARP


Fighting bills backed by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been, at times, like a giant game of whack-a-mole.

The entire strategy of the corporate front group is to push its “model” legislation in as many states as possible at once, feeding its member legislators—mostly Republicans, but some Democrats as well--ready-made bills that were written (for a fee) with the input of the country's biggest corporations.

After the controversy around Florida's “Stand Your Ground” law and the shooting of Trayvon Martin, ALEC said it was backing off such bills to focus on “business-friendly” legislation, but its business-friendly work does plenty of damage too. ALEC pushes deregulation, union-busting, privatization, and tax loopholes for big businesses, allowing corporations like AT&T, Koch Industries, and Verizon to essentially write the laws that regulate them.

ALEC-backed telecommunications deregulation bills hit New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut recently, in a one-two-three punch combination designed as a quick knockout blow that consumers and workers would be powerless to fight. But a coalition, including the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Working Families party, and the AARP, managed to stop the bills, which would've resulted in cost hikes, lost jobs, and service cut-offs for “ less profitable” customers—disproportionately senior, rural, or low-income customers who use basic phone service.

“We're up against quite literally armies of lobbyists from the phone companies,” Matt Wood, a policy expert with Free Press, told AlterNet. “That's the thing about ALEC and their approach, they can push things in so many different states at once, if not with no coverage, certainly with less coverage on the national level.”

Deregulating and Denying Service

Telecom policy is an area in which legislators very often don't have a lot of expertise and are vulnerable to talk of fancy new technologies—and to big money. Politicians from both parties love to boast of their investment in high-tech, after all, and so when lobbyists are telling them about their fancy new service, throwing around terms like VoIP (Voice over IP, essentially phone service over the Internet, which is what you have if you get your home phone through your cable company or Verizon FIOS), it's easy enough to convince even those politicians who aren't predisposed to deregulating everything in sight. Yet deregulating the fancy new technology has an impact even on those who use traditional services.

“Some company comes to you and says this is going to be great for investment. Exactly what will they be investing in?” Bob Master, political and legislative director at CWA District 1, asked. “Being deeply familiar with the industry, there's no job-creating investment that's happening in telecommunications, it's all job-destroying investment. Verizon is contracting out, outsourcing our work, offshoring our work, trying to do everything wirelessly. That's where the investment is going and no wires means no workers.”

But it's not just jobs that the telecoms would like to eliminate—it's service to people who don't choose to use the fancier products or can't afford expensive service, or maybe who live in a rural area. In Connecticut and New Jersey, the deregulation plan would have eliminated “carrier of last resort” protections, which require them to provide service to anyone who reasonably requests it in their coverage area. Matt Wood explained, “Phone companies have always had special rights and privileges granted by the state, so they've been expected to provide service to everybody. They have taken the true statement that broadband service is different to extremes and said that it is so different that you shouldn't regulate it at all.”

When it comes to VoIP, for instance, Wood pointed out that what sounds like an arcane technology is actually commonplace these days—and the claim that it's too new to regulate actually just gives companies like AT&T and Verizon an excuse to deregulate their whole network. “That takes away a a lot of protections on services, the reliability of the network,” he said.