Wednesday, May 1, 2013

John Donne's Dilemma

The telephone is a device taken for granted in every home, office and, until recently, glass booths on nearly every street corner across the country. From the first switchboard in New Haven, Connecticut in 1878, the telephone has come to be more a ubiquitous utility than the revolutionary communications device it was when first introduced.

I cannot remember the last time I saw, much less used, a pay phone. Cell phones are nearly universal and may have been most responsible for hastening their disappearance. Somewhere I fear, Clark Kent weeps, but history marches on.

Not too far from New Haven and that first switchboard is our state capital, Hartford, and what is basically a third attempt to author the next chapter in the history of the telephone here in Connecticut, House Bill 6402, officially called  "An Act Modernizing the State's Telecommunication Laws."

As I said, this is the third time for this legislation and while that may be the charm, it might be worth a closer look.

As kids growing up when we said 'the telephone company' there was no confusion-everyone knew whom you meant and who they were, but in recent years, there's a proliferation of providers. In addition to land lines and dial tone from 'the phone company, we have cell phones, Voice Over Internet Protocols (VOIP) and telephone service offered by cable companies. It's all the Department of Public Utilities Control can do to keep track of quality of customer service, prices for services rendered, who's on first and well, you know how that one goes.

You and I might assume any legislation 'modernizing the state's telecommunication laws' would be unanimously endorsed and embraced, and in looking at the press coverage on the behind the scenes skirmishing over the bill, the arguments aren't over the language but the impact.

Fifteen years ago, time flies when you're having fun, SBC which had purchased SNET which had been one of the Baby Bells before the Big, Bad Phone Company monopoly was ended in 1982, bought AT&T and realizing the bigger name recognition adopted the AT&T name as its own.

The new AT&T asked for and received approval for the merger and may have sealed the deal in The Nutmeg State with a promise of increasing Connecticut employment by about 1,400 jobs, always a siren song to legislators and regulators trying to bring home the bacon. Except, as the decade unwound and the economy fell apart, jobs disappeared and there are now fewer, many fewer jobs (about 1,800) with AT&T now than there were in 2001.

I'd like to believe modernizing the state's telecommunication laws will guarantee those jobs, but not only will HB 6402 not do that, it doesn't force AT&T to honor its current commitments to what you or I might see as universal happy endings for customers like better (or continuing) service, newer technologies and products or even reasonable prices.

AT&T, not surprisingly is in favor of the bill's passage. They are its direct beneficiaries and I don't deny them the right to what they claim should be a 'level playing field.' But how do you suppose our state representatives and senators feel about us as the casualties of a bill with very few consumer protections and even fewer corporate penalties. Maybe we should call them up and ask them. We don't need a brother to lend us a dime, but we may need to borrow some dialtone.
-bill kenny

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