By Tracy Rosenberg
I was out-gunned 30-1.
On May 26th, I went to the California Public Utilities Commission to encourage them to perform a thorough investigation of the impact of the AT&T / T-Mobile merger on California consumers.
As a public interest advocate, I’m used to being the underdog. Despite sending lots of last-minute emails asking people to come, I didn’t expect a huge amount of folks would be able to dispense with work and family and rush over to the commission meeting.
But I didn’t expect it to be this bad.
Speaker after speaker encouraged the commission not to delay the merger, which would magically deliver 4G everywhere, end all dropped calls, deliver high-speed broadband nationwide, and help bring the US economy out of recession.
There didn’t seem to be much this merger wouldn’t fix.
Somewhat to my shock, several people I recognized as leaders of organizations that serve lower-income populations, had come to make comments encouraging automatic approval of the merger with no investigation.
Then came my one minute to provide an alternative point of view.
- I said that duopolies rarely result in lower prices for consumers.
- I mentioned the December 2010 Consumer Reports study ranking AT&T as the lowest-ranked wireless carrier in customer satisfaction
- I asked them to substantiate the miraculous claims of merger proponents, or at least to provide some evidence for them.
Afterwards I spoke to a few people. One of them was a young woman representing a chamber of commerce in Fresno. I asked her if she really thought the merger would bring such amazing benefits to the local small businesses she represents.
She answered that she liked what I had to say about the merger.
The upshot of the day’s hearing was a 5-0 vote to open an investigative proceeding and not automatically approve the merger.
As I sat waiting for the result, only a few feet away from the president of AT&T California, Ken McNeeley, I had some time to think about what I had just participated in.
- My DC friends tell me the ratio of telecom lobbying efforts compared to public interest lobbying efforts is 661-1.
- AT&T spent 15 million dollars lobbying in 2010. That is 60x the annual budget of my organization (when it’s doing well).
- Small businesses, which often suffer as much from non-competitive markets as low-income consumers do, are represented by those who say that what is good for AT&T is good for everybody. Is it really?
- Community organizations have to balance the needs of their constituents against getting the funds they need to deliver services. But the price of these charitable donations may be a little too high if it places organizations in the position of advocating for what is likely to be higher prices for their communities.
I came out of the May 26th hearing with the result I hoped for.
The Public Utilities Commission agreed they owed it to the people of California to engage in an informational proceeding on the merger’s impact.
On this day, the odds were overcome.
But the public needs more than a minute at a dais. And David needs a fighting chance to debate AT&T’s Goliath on a fair platform that doesn’t put community organizations between a rock and hard place.
There is more to come. On July 9th, the commission will discuss the scope of the proceeding and no doubt, there will be battles to make it larger or smaller.
I really hope for better odds than 30-1.