MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Telecommunications providers and consumer advocates sparred Wednesday in front of a legislative committee over whether a bill that would deregulate Wisconsin's telecommunications industry would lead to better Internet access or sky-high phone bills.
Providers told the state Senate's information technology committee the bill would lead to competitive balance in the industry, wider broadband access and would create tens of thousands of jobs. Opponents fired back that those claims are wildly exaggerated and that the measure would actually leave customers vulnerable to exorbitant rate increases and possibly with no phone service at all.
"What's in it for the citizens of Wisconsin?" said Rob Boelk, president of a Fond du Lac-based Communications Workers of America chapter that represents AT&T workers. "If you want to give away the farm, what will you get in return?"
The Republican bill represents the first changes to Wisconsin's telecommunications statutes in nearly two decades. Supporters say the proposal closely mirrors similar changes in several other states, including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.
Written at the request of Gov. Scott Walker and backed by industry powers such as AT&T Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, the measure is packed with technical jargon. Essentially, the Public Service Commission could no longer set telecommunications rates, perform audits of providers or investigate consumer complaints. The commission also would be prohibited from regulating data services such as high-speed Internet service.
Providers would no longer be required to supply the commission with their prices and terms of service. They also would not have to provide service throughout a territory after 2013.
The bill's main Senate sponsor, Rich Zipperer (R-Pewaukee), promised the bill would lead to a more competitive marketplace.
"Today's smartphone world is governed by rotary phone regulations," Zipperer said. "We have to ensure our telecommunications infrastructure can keep up with market demands."
Providers told the committee that easing regulations would help them deliver their services much more efficiently and, in turn, lead to deeper investments in expanding broadband access around the state and other communication improvements.
That would allow businesses to accomplish more, leading to more hires. AT&T Wisconsin President Scott VanderSanden estimated the bill could lead to 50,000 jobs kept or created across a wide swath of sectors in the state.
"The bill is practical. It includes a lot of common sense," VanderSanden said. "This is not a risky concept."
Kira Loehr, an attorney with the Citizens Utility Board, which advocates for utility consumers, said customers would indeed face a risk. No state oversight could lead to exorbitant rates, especially for rural and elderly customers who might be forced to give up their trusted landlines for more expensive Internet-cable-phone bundle packages.
"Not everyone wants to bundle," she said. "The cost could go through the roof."
She also questioned how state lawmakers would know if broadband access was improving because providers would no longer have to give information to the state.
Opponents also warned allowing providers to end service in an area after 2013 could leave people without communication. Providers who addressed the committee said they wouldn't abandon their service areas, but the CWA's Boelk wasn't convinced.
Big providers have no local loyalty, he said, and if the bill passes, no one would be able to stop them from raising rates by dozens of dollars a year just to price themselves out of the archaic landline business.
He scoffed at VanderSanden's 50,000-job figure. He said the bill could cost jobs.
Lack of oversight on repairs could leave businesses waiting for days to get back online. They may grow so frustrated they switch providers, which could force the original provider to cut techs' jobs. Eliminating landlines also could cost techs work, he said.
Promises of extending broadband are exaggerated, he added. It takes thousands of dollars to extend access to even one customer, he said.
"Why would companies want to invest?" he said.
The Senate committee wasn't expected to vote on the measure. The assembly energy committee, however, was scheduled to take it up on Thursday, clearing the way for consideration before that house's full body.