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Telecom reform on track despite demagoguery

By JIM WATERS The Bluegrass Institute

Telecommunications companies like AT&T have for three years vigorously pushed to rid Kentucky of regulatory regiments that place our state at a competitive disadvantage.

Deregulation's opponents argue to protect access to basic telephone service - especially emergency services - for poor, elderly and rural citizens.

The result is Senate Bill 99 - a culmination of three years of debate with the legislative back-and-forth ensuring all concerns are adequately addressed and all scenarios fully considered.

The policy in this bill is so good that it not only passed the state Senate on a 34-4 vote, it also sailed through the Kentucky House Committee on Economic Development by a 15-0 vote. It doesn't get more bipartisan than that.

Many lawmakers who represent rural regions have offered reasonable concerns. Most say those issues have been thoroughly vetted and it's time to move on.

"We want to make sure that people living in areas that may not have cellphone coverage have access to basic phone service," Rep. Wilson Stone, D-Scottsville, told me. "That is a very important thing."

Stone cast one of those 15 votes - an obvious indication that he believes the proposed reforms don't threaten his constituents' access to basic phone service, including 911 calls.

He and most legislators are acting reasonably on this issue and sincerely trying to do the right thing for Kentuckians.

Political ideologues, however, in the throes of a last-minute lunge to knock reform off its legislative tracks continue to offer misleading statements and fear mongering.

First, the misleading statements:

n Tom Fitzgerald of the Kentucky Natural Resources Council's fabrication published by his fellow ideologues at the state's two largest newspapers claims that the telecom reform legislation would end AT&T's "obligation to offer basic local exchange phone service for exchanges with 15,000 or more."

The statement is a myth. Rather, the new policy offers companies and customers a choice of how they provide and receive basic service, respectively.

n Fitzgerald accused Hood Harris, Kentucky's AT&T president, of presenting Stone's committee with "misleading testimony."

Stone had asked Harris whether the proposed policy would ensure that someone moving into a rural location with a landline going back to party line days (anyone remember those?) that has since become vacant - like property his mother used to live on - would be able to again receive service.

While SB 99 would not require a telecom provider to install a landline to the property referenced by Stone if the property had not already contained a line, Harris correctly answered that because it already contained such a line, the same kind of basic service that existed when his mother lived there would also be available to new residents.

Then, there's the fear mongering:

n The ideologues who write two newspapers' editorials have worked overtime to create doubt about whether poor Kentuckians would have reliable service and sufficient protection from the state's Public Service Commission.

The only chance their manufactured hysteria has of succeeding is if most Kentuckians and their legislators fail to receive - or read - the memo: the PSC already has no oversight over wireless and broadband services, non-traditional landlines or even a large portion of traditional landlines.

Consumers are casting votes with their wallets in ways that suggest they prefer the reliable wireless service that continues to improve and expand as a result of intense competition in the telecommunications marketplace rather than government regulation.

The phone continues to ring as this issue has been thoroughly debated and considered; bills have been written, rewritten, amended, challenged and changed. A proposal awaits on the other end of the line that allows Kentucky to follow many other states by moving forward with sound regulatory reform that allows for wireless expansion and creates economic opportunities that benefit all Kentuckians.

It's time to answer that call.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky's free market think tank.

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