A recent examination of a program to expand internet access, which began in Kentucky and then moved into Tennessee and now goes under the name Connected Nation raises some concerns that the entire project is basically a PR machine for AT&T.
Media analyst Art Brodsky provides a look at how the project is advancing and who is advancing it:
"Their judgment, broadly stated, is that Connect Kentucky is nothing more than a sales force and front group for AT&T paid for by the telecommunications industry and by state and federal governments that has achieved far more in publicity than it has in actual accomplishment. Connect helps to promote AT&T services, while lobbying at the state capitol for the deregulation legislation the telephone company wants.
"Connect v 2.0, the version we have today, emerged in 2004 under the new governor, Ernie Fletcher (R). From the start, there were two elements that drove it – the presence of BellSouth and of Fletcher staff and supporters. The man described as the one who came up with today’s program is Joe Mefford, who spent more than 30 years in the old AT&T and BellSouth before retiring and moving to the Kentucky League of Cities. He was the head of BellSouth’s Kentucky political action committee. Joe Mefford conducted the initial meetings on the new Connect Kentucky plan, according to one close observer of the process. This source, like many in Kentucky, asked not to be identified because of the continuing power of BellSouth.
Today, Joe Mefford is the state broadband director for Connect Kentucky. Fletcher announced his new “Prescription for Innovation” on Oct. 8, 2004, at the 75th annual Kentucky League of Cities convention. (The relationship with the League continues today, through a $130,000 contract awarded by Connect in 2006 for project management.) Commerce Cabinet Secretary Jim Host was one of those in charge of the new program.
While the Fletcher connection came first from Joe Mefford, who served on Fletcher’s transition team after his election it then expanded to Joe Mefford’s son, Brian, who came to Connect’s parent organization as CEO in June 2004 after working in Fletcher’s gubernatorial campaign and then for six months for Host in Fletcher’s Commerce Cabinet – the equivalent of the state Commerce Department. Through the transformation, Brian Mefford became head of Connect Kentucky. He has since graduated to president and chief executive officer of Connected Nation, with a salary of $150,000 in 2006, according to Connect’s tax form."
"Newspapers, AARP, rural telephone companies and the state attorney general opposed the bill. The Louisville Courier-Journal said in a March 22, 2006 editorial: “There’s no reason the Kentucky Senate should rush to judgment on House Bill 337, which would deregulate some telephone services in Kentucky at the expense of those who live outside the major metropolitan areas. It may seem strange that such a measure would find so much support in a rural-dominated body like the General Assembly, but lobbyists for the big telecommunication companies (BellSouth, AT&T and Alltel) seem to have had more sway with lawmakers than the folks back home in rural and small-town Kentucky.”
Recently, mapping of KY and TN internet access was offered via Conneted Nation, but Brodsky notes this disclaimer:
"The last word on the mapping goes to the more general disclaimer on the Connect Web site: “The information provided herein by Connect Kentucky and is partners is believed to be accurate but is not warranted and is for informational purposes only. While all efforts are made to ensure the correctness and accuracy of this information, and to make corrections and change errors brought to our attention, no representation, express or implied, is made as to the accuracy of the data presented. Connect Kentucky and its partners assume no liability for the accuracy of the data.”
As this program is being touted in Washington now as the model for expanding access, a careful examination of it's claims, government funding and successes and failures is warranted. One Kentucky official referred to this rapidly accepted model as an example of "... putting the fox in charge of the henhouse to take a BellSouth executive and his son in charge of expanding broadband when they are supposed to be neutral."
Will Connect Tennessee have a major influence on how the current legislature decides the debate on franchise laws in Tennessee?