Telcos Feed 'Grassroots’ Group

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Surfing for news on the Web site of the Sacramento Bee newspaper recently, readers were confronted by an ad intended to tweak anyone’s attention.

The orange-on-black ad fairly screamed “mycablenightmare.com,” with that Web address punctuated by a bizarrely grinning jack-o’-lantern.

The online ad is one of several placed on newspaper sites in California as a strategy by Consumers For Cable Choice, which describes itself as a grass-roots organization, incorporated in June in Indiana as a nonprofit domestic corporation supporting government reform of franchise policy and broadband-access rules.

But the group’s seed money comes from the nation’s two largest telephone companies, Verizon Communications Inc. and SBC Communications Inc., both of which are beginning to compete with cable systems for pay TV subscribers.

The group is backing legislative changes sought by Verizon and other phone companies in states such as New Jersey and, soon, California.

HORROR STORIES

Internet users who go to the “nightmare” site are greeted with the question “Cable treating you like a big fat turkey?” Visitors are then solicited to pen their worst horror stories, with the “best” bad story earning an iPod Nano. (October’s winner: a Sacramento resident who detailed his two-month ordeal getting a clear cable and a workable high-speed Internet connection from Comcast Corp.)

Links are also provided to news stories on cable rate hikes, service failures and embarrassments such as the incident this summer where a Chicago customer received a bill addressed to “bitch dog.”

The organization is also soliciting support from other consumer groups and business lobbies throughout the country. Members have held meetings, targeting groups such as small businessmen, relating the dire economic consequences from being stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide.

So, to parrot the famous line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “Who are those guys?”

Critics of Consumers for Cable Choice answer that question by asserting it is not an organization spontaneously created by a disaffected public. What it is, they say, is a puppet for the telephone industry.

Bob Johnson, president of Consumers for Cable Choice, freely admits that Verizon Communications Inc. provided the non-profit with a $75,000 grant as seed money. SBC Communications Inc. also recently donated a similar amount, he added. Individuals financially support the group, he said, but stressed that none of the individuals are telephone company executives. (The group is too newly incorporated to have made reports to the state of Indiana on its finances.)

But despite those donations and Johnson’s long history as a telecommunications attorney, he asserts that the organization and its coalition of members develop their own positions on behalf of consumers.

'AGNOSTIC’ ON TECHNOLOGY

“We are agnostic as to the technology,” said Johnson. “We just care about the battle and how consumers come out in that. [Cable] is the last bastion of monopoly and consumers pay the price for that.

“If this was just another coax line, it wouldn’t matter to the groups joining us. What’s important [are] fiber and interactive applications,” he added.

Members of the group’s coalition includes such lobbying groups as the World Institute on Disabilities (Oakland, Calif.), the League of United Latin American Citizens (Washington, D.C), Americans for Competitive Telecommunications (California) and Self Help for the Elderly (California).

Consumers for Cable Choice estimates its coalition members represent about 365,000 consumers nationwide.

The anti-cable group’s members say they signed on top obtain timely information on federal and state bills that affect access to data services.

“This is important to us because we don’t have any access,” said Betty Jo Toccali, president of the California Small Business Association. She said less than 10% of small (non-home-based) businesses in California have access to broadband services. Many rural businesses still can’t get digital-subscriber line service — their only broadband option, she said.

“We represent up to 57% of the economy, but [small firms] are the last to get new services,” she said. Her own office building, near Los Angeles International Airport, only recently got the option to add DSL. Local cable operator Comcast apparently has no intent to service her building, she said.

Lynne McBride, director of government relations for the California Farmers Union, a lobby for family farmers, said her group supports Consumers for Cable Choice because access to the same data products found in urban and suburban areas is critical to the family farm’s survival.

Coalition members reached by Multichannel News said they don’t give Consumers for Cable Choice money.

For example, the CSBA helped develop a white paper detailing the effect lack of high-speed access has on business.

Johnson said the Web ads for its companion site, mycablenightmare.com, are placed on multiple newspaper sites in California because the group feels the state will host the next showdown over rules governing competitive entry into the cable business.

“We’re getting a great deal of consumer press. My Cable Nightmare is striking a real chord,” Johnson said, adding that his organization’s press releases are gaining the attention of consumer affairs beat reporters as they “try to learn this issue for the first time.”

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