Civil Rights Unplugged

By C. Delores Tucker
Saturday, October 15, 2005

(C. Delores Tucker, who was active in numerous civil rights causes for many and was co-founder of the National Congress of Black Women, died this week at 78. She submitted this column to The Post earlier this month.)

Picture for a minute a major financial institution petitioning Congress for special rules to allow it to provide loans only in certain communities throughout the country. "The cities are off limits!" says this fictional creditor, "and the moderate, middle-income communities . . . forget about it! They're not high-end enough."

Were such a corporate actor to step into the political arena, civil rights and political leaders would be quick with their denunciations, attacking the proposal as the kind of odious bigotry seen in a bygone era. Yet this is exactly what the Bell telecommunications monopolies -- Verizon and SBC -- are proposing to Congress and to legislators in California, New Jersey and other places around the country. They are insisting that lawmakers bless their proposal to roll out new digital television and advanced broadband services only to the more affluent.

If the pols accede to this special-interest pitch, it will represent a sea change in the bipartisan telecommunications policy of the past 20 years that has required companies that provide video services -- such as cable TV -- to serve the entire community through local franchise agreements.

To hear the Bells tell it, this non-discrimination requirement is standing in the way of their investing in advanced fiber networks that will, in turn, enable them to deliver cable television and other services over the Internet. Indeed, in making this argument, the Bells have shifted the goal posts: Last year they argued that federal regulators needed to kill telephone competition rules to allow them to make such investments.

According to information it provided to The Post, Verizon's current plan in the Washington area excludes almost all of the District of Columbia and Prince George's County -- both predominantly African American. In New Jersey, the phone goliath promises new services to merely 66 New Jersey communities -- nearly every one with an average household income well over the state average. The company appears to also be targeting only the most affluent communities in Virginia, Maryland, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts with its new fiber services.

For its part, SBC admits to Wall Street that 90 percent of its "high-value" customers will be beneficiaries of its television service but only 5 percent of its "low-value" customers will be wired up. A spokesman for the National League of Cities calls this "red-lining." A leader in the Urban League said that the policy would cause minority and low-income communities to "fall further behind in the deployment of new technologies."

From my vantage point, I have no great love for the cable companies, and I believe that some good old-fashioned competition is badly needed in the industry. But at the same time, it is worth noting that the cable industry -- which built its networks with private capital and not through government handouts -- has lived by rules requiring that all residents in its service areas get the option of the latest advanced digital services. The telephone monopolies, which boasted over $16 billion in profits last year, and which actually have a significantly larger national footprint than do the cable companies, should be held to the same standard.

In promoting special-interest legislation sponsored by Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Albert Wynn (D-Md.) that would allow the Bells to red-line, their well-paid lobbyists and (mostly paid) third-party spokesmen have said that new rules for the telephone monopolies are needed for competition and investment. But these arguments are more than a little self-serving.

For starters, the Bell telephone companies spent tens of millions of dollars to kill federal and state competition rules for the telephone industry and instead sought to reinforce regulatory barriers to market entry and otherwise thwart competition -- behavior that is now, according to a recent U.S. Circuit Court decision, likely to be the subject of major antitrust action. If you think that gas prices are soaring, wait until you see what happens to phone prices as a result of the elimination of competition in that industry. Hearing SBC and Verizon preach competition is like listening to Ron Artest preach good sportsmanship at an NBA game.

The telephone companies' proposal is made precisely for the purpose of allowing them to invest less, and in fewer communities -- rather than more, as the current rules require. And as for their perennial promises of more investment in exchange for legislative favors: Legislators around the country have derided SBC and Verizon for never fulfilling such pledges.

Don't get me wrong. I support Verizon and SBC's entrance into the video services market, and I believe that consumers will benefit from it. But these potential benefits should not transform our elected officials into marionettes for two monopolies that want to trample our civil rights traditions.


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