SBC merger support: Grass-roots with a twist

By David Rohde, Network World |  Government

ST. LOUIS -- On July 17, a group called the Campaign for Telecommunications Access submitted a 26-page legal brief to the Federal Communications Commission endorsing SBC Communications' proposed buyout of Ameritech.

The group, consisting of 51 advocacy organizations for elderly and disabled people, argued that the telephone companies are "the only clear last hope for bringing broadband technology the last mile to our homes and neighborhoods." Letting the two Bell giants combine "is likely to enhance the probability that they will roll out [this] technology," the group added.

Ten days later, the group, which had swelled to 62 members, fired off a new letter to the FCC complaining that the merger's opponents, such as long-distance carriers and new local carriers, were playing politics by insisting on ever-stricter post-merger restrictions.

"The vast bulk of [these carriers] just boldly demand one benefit or another to enhance their wealth -- as though making them wealthy is somehow good for the public interest," the letter said.

Here's what neither letter revealed: that the Campaign for Telecommunications Access is largely funded by -- you guessed it -- SBC.

As has become common in such high-stakes telecom political battles, the final stage of the government's SBC/Ameritech merger review is being accompanied by a rumble of lobbying from purported grass-roots organizations with undisclosed ties to the parties in question. An SBC takeover of Ameritech could change the enterprise network landscape in the Midwest, but FCC Chairman William Kennard wants the agency to make all its merger decisions based on how it thinks the new owner will treat residential customers. Some independent user organizations are charging that the lobbying activity is an attempt to distract the FCC from what the organizations view as SBC's poor track record in past telephone company takeovers.

The headquarters of the Campaign for Telecommunications Access is the St. Louis law office of David Newburger, an attorney with long-standing ties to SBC as well as its principal subsidiary, Southwestern Bell. Newburger is well-known in the St. Louis disabilities community and has earned accolades since the late 1970s for representing blind, deaf and other disabled people in legal battles against city housing, transportation and other authorities. Newburger says he first became involved in telecom when he went to bat in favor of caller ID -- generally considered a big benefit for disabled people -- about 10 years ago.

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