Consumer Groups Want a Say


Washington— If Congress drafts a new telecommunications law, a range of consumer, civil-rights and public-interest groups say they’ll fight for the interests of millions of Americans not represented by Washington lobbyists who spend lavishly to extract political favors.

“We need democratic principles to guide these changes in law, not interest groups that give the most money,” Gene Kimmelman, senior director for public policy at Consumers Union, said at press conference here last Monday.

The groups claim that in passing the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress failed to deliver lower prices and greater choice. Instead, the law ushered in an era of media and telecommunications consolidation and, in cable’s case, higher retail prices.


“We do not want to repeat history,” Common Cause president Chellie Pingree said. “This time, 20 million people want a seat at the table, and we’re here to make sure that happens.”

A total of 30 groups — including the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the United Church of Christ and the AFL-CIO — have formed the Media and Democracy Coalition in an effort to keep the Internet free from corporate control, to spur minority media ownership and to force broadcasters to do a better job covering local issues and elections.

The coalition also unveiled its “Bill of Media Rights,” a detailed pamphlet insisting that, among other things, the public should have the right to independent journalism, access to multiple Internet-service providers and service from radio and TV stations that are locally owned and responsive to the needs of each individual community.

“We are going to fight against anything that inhibits and for anything that promotes nondiscriminatory access to diverse points of view, diverse media, and diverse cultural perspectives,” Kimmelman said.


A new law should also take into account that major media outlets are not owned by minorities, said former FCC member Gloria Tristani, managing director of the UCC’s office of communication. She said “people of color” own 3.8% of radio and 1.9% of TV stations, and that minorities are “woefully unrepresented” on primetime TV.

“The gargantuan consolidation of the media since the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act has stymied the gain that people of color had made in media ownership and employment,” said Tristani, appointed to the FCC by President Clinton. “The public and those who have historically been excluded and economically marginalized must have a voice in the process.”

Claming the 1996 law is outdated, key lawmakers want to enact a new statute that begins to address the convergence of voice, video and data on the same network, whether cable, phone or wireless.

In recent years, the Federal Communications Commission has struggled to come up with rules that apply equally to cable and phone companies that provide high-speed Internet access, and that establish whether network owners need to accommodate competing access providers that don’t own their own facilities and need to ensure that consumers have unfettered access to legal Web-based content and services.

The coalition hopes the power of its ideas will trump the financial advantage of its opponents.

“The industry has all of the money, there is no question. We do not. We have people who now understand what is at risk,” Kimmelman said.

Writing a new telecom law is a huge undertaking. The 1996 law was a 12-year effort that had its roots in the 1982 court decreed that broke up the AT&T Corp. monopoly by separating long distance phone calling from local service.


House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) has called for a top-to-bottom rewrite of the law, and said a new bill would be unveiled in a few weeks. But he’s been saying that for more than a month.

Meanwhile, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) agreed that current law has some deficiencies, but has not decided on what a new law should look like.

In the interim, Congress is more likely to concentrate on legislation designed to end the DTV transition by Dec. 31, 2006 or soon thereafter. But the mechanics of the transition could cause millions of consumers to spend billions of dollars to keep their old TV sets working after TV stations shut down analog transmission.

“What will happen to people’s television sets that are not digital? How will they get their signals? What will they have to pay to get over-the-air broadcast?” Kimmelman asked.