Bowing to the will (not to mention campaign funding prowess) of AT&T, the Alabama Senate passed a bill that completely deregulates landline phone service in Alabama and strips the Public Service Commission of the ability to regulate quality and prices for service.
The PSC lobbied hard against the bill, which strips even more power from the almost-useless agency. Remember what we learned with the Alabama Broadband Initiative. The PSC doesn't even have the authority to demand that telecom companies turn over information about what areas they serve, what products they offer, and how much service costs! That also courtesy of the Alabama Legislature's cozy relationship with big business (and the campaign cash it provides).
Sadly, it was Democratic Senators who sold out the rural residents of Alabama. President Pro Tem, Roger Smitherman, introduced the bill. Rules Committee Chair, Lowell Barron, allowed it to come to the floor for a vote – multiple times because Bobby Singleton filibustered for several days.
So how did it pass with a filibuster threat? The Times Daily of Florence has the story…
It took only one lawmaker stepping outside the Senate chamber last week for a telephone deregulation bill to win approval.
Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, who had been filibustering a bill that would deregulate AT&T home and business phone service, stepped out for a few minutes during the session. When he returned, the Senate had passed the bill on a 19-8 vote. Such is the stuff legislation is made of in Alabama.
Giving itself a cover, the Senate made changes to the bill –
The Senate rewrote the bill to mandate that phone companies can't charge rural residents more than they do urban residents.
That wasn't protection enough for opponents, because people in urban areas have far more choices for phone service than rural residents do. There are still no controls on pricing, so phone companies with a monopoly are free to raise rates as much as they want.
For instance, some areas in north Madison County are served by a small local phone company: Ardmore Telephone. The service isn't too terrible, but it's pretty expensive. We pay over $40/month for a single landline with caller id. It's the only option for phone service. There's no cell service due to the interference from mountains. There's no DSL. There's no cable.
We have no phone options other than Ardmore Telephone. Many rural areas have the same issue, so removal of price controls worried Singleton, according to the Birmingham News:
Singleton said that if it becomes law, companies could raise rates for basic phone service “without government oversight, by any amount.”
“We've seen that deregulation has hurt this country,” he added.
This bill is headed to the House today. It's House bill #478.
Will the House stand up for consumers in Alabama and keep some power in the hands of the PSC? Or will they follow the Senate and kowtow to corporate interests at the expense of citizens?
I'm afraid I know the answer.
There's still time to contact your legislator and ask him/her to vote NO on phone deregulation! The switchboard number for the Alabama House is: 334-242-7600. If you aren't sure who your legislator is, go here to enter your ZIP code and find out.