National organizations that have argued against the merger, such as the Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the American Association for Retired People (AARP), say the letters now coming in are an attempt to neutralize that opposition.
"This is an Astroturf war. It's completely artificial," says CFA Research Director Mark Cooper. "It's a campaign orchestrated by Southwestern Bell to try to convince regulators that there is broad-based public support for the merger."
Newburger denies that, saying there's nothing unusual about corporations and consumer groups working together if their views are aligned. Accepting funding from SBC is merely "the costs of being able to make something good happen," he says. And there's no legal requirement to disclose the funding of comment letters in an FCC proceeding, he adds: "That's not relevant. It's not a question the FCC asks us."
Indeed, Washington insiders note that other large carriers also regularly engage in hidden -- though perfectly legal -- funding for grass-roots lobbying. But they say SBC may need groups such as the Campaign for Telecommunications Access more than other telcos because the Consumers Union and the AARP have opposed the merger, and other groups have complained about SBC's 1997 takeover of Pacific Bell. The Campaign for Telecommunications Access got its 62 participating commenters by asking groups to sign on to the letter extolling the proposed merger's potential in the residential broadband arena, but several signers seemed markedly less enthusiastic when recently contacted by Network World.
"Personally I don't know if you can say that anyone has done a great job" of rolling out broadband services, says Wilhemina Gunther, president of the Illinois Assistive Technology Project, a group that helps disabled people obtain new skills.
SBC also has to battle the fact that the FCC and Texas regulators have recently slapped SBC with penalties for improper lobbying.
The FCC has held up the SSBC/Ameritech merger for more than a year while it intensely negotiates additional conditions to the transaction.
"They're squeezing [SBC CEO] Ed Whitacre because they don't really like him very much, he's pissed them off so many times," says one top former FCC official who asked not to be identified.