I have a couple of updates to add on my post from last week regarding the creation of state and national programs focusing on expanding internet access which also seems to work not only as a PR machine for AT&T but as a lobbying agency as well. A flurry of activity has been taking place and rapid changes are ahead.
Here is my original post, and I did share some of these concerns via email with Michael Ramage, a former BellSouth employee, who now heads Connected Tennessee. I truly appreciate his willingness to correspond with me about these issues.
My email to Mr. Ramage:
Thanks very much for your email. My previous email apparently had the wrong address! So a few questions:
First, in Kentucky, your company backed House Bill 337 allowed the Bell companies to get into the pay television marketplace in Kentucky without having to obtain franchises from municipalities across the state.
Similar legislation is being promoted in TN as well. It seems curious to me the legislation is preceded by the creation of the Connected organization.
The usual build-out requirements which cities/counties require of current cable and cable internet providers is excluded from such legislation. I think the term usually used is “cherry-picking” customers, which means more poor and rural areas will receive service last, if at all.
By receiving government funds to operate, it’s as if some of those funds are being used to lobby for changes favoring AT&T expansion into the internet/cable markets.
Also, Connect Kentucky CEO Brian Mefford, before the Senate Commerce Committee on April 24, 2007, reported that Kentucky is on track “to be the first state with 100 percent broadband coverage,” with Leichtman Research Group data showing that, at the beginning of 2007, Kentucky was 46th of the 51 states and Washington, D.C., in residential broadband penetration.
The mapping project being public is important, certainly, and making it available to the public is also vital. But how often is such mapping used to encourage legislation which would provide tax breaks?
Mostly my concerns are that former BellSouth employees are leading the Connect efforts - in Kentucky, in Tennessee and at the national level too - and that encouraging support for legislation creating a national program are simply part of the lobbying efforts to change laws regarding existing franchise agreements.
If the TN legislature seeks info today regarding broadband availability and reach, a report from a government-funded organization such as yours would support AT&T's efforts would they not?
Are any current cable-internet representatives on the boards of the Connect organizations? Or representatives from municipal-owned franchises?
Thanks for your time and I appreciate very much your responses.
Mr. Ramage's response:
I appreciate the email. I am glad to have the opportunity to help clarify Connected Tennessee's purpose and role.
Connected Tennessee received a grant to implement Governor Bredesen's Trail to Innovation based on the recommendations of the State Broadband Taskforce. The Taskforce had representation from state government, telephone, wireless, cable, municipals, cellular, CLEC and more. The pending bills were not issues that weighed on the taskforce during their recommendations that led to the creation of Tennessee. Later, the taskforce determined they would not get involved with the video franchise issue.
Connected Tennessee has not and will not take a side on the issues you mentioned in Tennessee. It is important for us to work with all providers. Our goal is to expand the presence of broadband. That service may come from a telephone company, a cable company, a wireless ISP, a CLEC or a
municipal provider. We are technology and vendor agnostic. Our only goals are for the expansion of broadband services into unserved areas and the increased adoption of those services everywhere. In order for us to be successful, we will need the help of all providers.
Connected Tennessee has worked with all types of providers and will continue to do so. The purpose of our mapping efforts is to show where coverage is, but more importantly to show where gaps are. While the mapping is on-going, we are also leading grassroots demand creating and aggregating efforts in every county. We are already at work in more than a third of Tennessee counties. Based on our local findings, we can promote measures to encourage build out into rural areas. Our legislative recommendations would naturally be focused on helping extend broadband into unserved areas. We are not promoting any bills during this year's session. We will examine all available data and determine if anything should be promoted in next year's session.
Connected Nation and Connected Tennessee have partnered with a number of organizations. Among them are Comcast, National Cable Telecommunications Association, Communications Workers of America, AT&T, and the CTIA. Our partners, both at the state level and national level, cross various platforms and technologies. For us to be successful, it is important for us to remain neutral to any provider or platform.
I hope that this helps to address some of your concern. I do appreciate your interest and would encourage you to let me know if you have any questions regarding our efforts.
Michael Ramage, Executive Director
I can't say he answers eliminated my concerns and doubts. For instance, I asked about representatives on the existing Connected boards from other internet providers, and Mr. Ramage replies that Connected has "partnered" with other communications companies, but the response is really "No - they are not our boards".
Info on board members for national program here, the TN program here, and KY is here. Other than BellSouth and officials from the policy and government offices in KY, no other communications corporation appears to be placed in any position on the company's boards.
I admit I am hardly an expert in the fields of IT or ISP - I simply noticed some curious correlations. And yes, I was not happy to appear to be hostile to the spread of access to the internet, because I am not. And I am not the only one who sees problems with Connected.
Broadband Reports wrote last week:
"If Connected Nation is a for-profit incumbent lobbying and sales vehicle dressed up as a national broadband policy, it would be one of the most ingenious business ploys in the history of telecom. It would kill multiple birds with with stone by preventing more progressive and substantive policy changes from taking root, funneling state funds away from local providers and into the hands of incumbents, and allowing the nation's largest carriers to game penetration statistics to mask half-hearted rural broadband deployment.
All on the taxpayer's dime."
And a press release yesterday regarding the state of TN and AT&T about medical records got some attention - but as the Nashville Post noted, what was truly being reported was an ever-closer relationship between AT&T and Tennessee government. And recall what Ramage wrote in my email regarding legislation? "Not this year ..." which leaves plenty of room for the years after.
R. Neal wrote at KnoxViews yesterday on the announcement:
"So it is good to see Tennessee taking the initiative. But this deal looks more like a way to funnel federal grant money to AT&T than any kind of breakthrough statewide electronic medical records system. It also takes more money out of our health care system in the form of profits for AT&T. But, the state can't operate it's own internet, so it makes sense to outsource that and to negotiate the best deal. Were other backbone providers invited to bid?"
I too applaud and encourage efforts to expand access. It is vital for economic and cultural development, for tech and industry, for education, for medical care -- billions of dollars are at stake and so are millions of jobs. With so much at at stake, then even greater care must be taken as the state and the nation write laws and create programs. The decisions and consideration being made today will affect the state and the nation for decades to come.
The rapid rise of internet usage has been made thanks to many innovators from all types of creators and owners - corporate, government and also from those outside such ranks too. The internet is a challenge to traditional forms of media power. Including voices in these decisions from all of these levels of development - from ordinary and talented American minds - isn't just a nice gesture.