But Newburger concedes that by 1994 he had accepted funding from Southwestern Bell for a self-styled grass-roots coalition called ConnectMissouri. That group began battling before the Missouri Public Service Commission for a new telecom regulatory structure that ConnectMissouri said would preserve universal service. Other consumer groups complained that the structure would stifle local competition.
Newburger declined to discuss the amount of funding for ConnectMissouri, which officially listed as members such groups as the state associations for the blind and deaf. But he said Southwestern Bell provided all the money, even though none of the numerous ConnectMissouri filings obtained by Network World reveals this fact.
In 1997, Newburger became chairman of Keep America Connected, a Washington-based consumer coalition that has pressed carriers about the need to protect universal service. But it turns out that the coalition was actually formed by a public-policy consulting group with close ties to the U.S. Telephone Association. Long-distance carriers have denounced Keep America Connected as little more than a regional Bell operating company front group (NW, Jan. 26, 1998, page 1).
And last year, Newburger helped form the Campaign for Telecommunications Access with what he says includes funding from SBC and other RBOCs. He and other St. Louis activists have been writing to the FCC in droves defending the SBC/Ameritech merger -- even though St. Louis is the place where Ameritech was supposed to compete with SBC before pulling back after the mid-1998 merger announcement.
Newburger says residential customers wouldn't have benefited much by Ameritech becoming a competitive local exchange carrier in St. Louis because CLECs invariably go after business customers first, and his group is seeking residential broadband offerings. Yet the Campaign for Telecommunications Access also wrote to the FCC in December attacking the then-proposed merger between AT&T and cable TV giant
Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) -- a deal with the explicit purpose of rolling out broadband services to millions of residential customers.
Newburger says the group opposed that merger because TCI recently showed bad faith in St. Louis by rolling out a new digital television service without an option for additional audio descriptions of visual actions desired by sight-impaired people. Disabled people have a "visceral reaction" to this kind of corporate decision, he says.
But that's a selective view of mergers, say some shoestring consumer groups fighting the SBC/Ameritech merger, particularly those in Ameritech's region who fear SBC's reputation for aloofness. "The farther away the headquarters is, the less interested they are in serving [low-income] communities," says Ellis Jacobs, a lawyer for the Dayton (Ohio) Legal Aid Society, who represents the Edgemont Neighborhood Coalition.