by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Tomorrow the House Special Committee on Utilities will consider SB 284, the Missouri Video Franchise Bill. I wrote Feb. 6 that SB 284 is a bad bill. It would reduce public oversight of the cable companies that use public easements, it would essentially eliminate local PEG (public, education and government) channels, it would allow telecom companies to cherry-pick high-profit customers, and it would reduce the ability of government to audit those companies for compliance with the law.

After that column, the president of AT&T in Missouri, Cynthia Brinkley, wrote a letter to the editor to set the record straight. She assured Tribune readers AT&T has the public’s interest at heart and just wants us all to enjoy the benefits of increased competition.

Perhaps I was just too cynical. After all, the Missouri Communications Alliance, a Missouri not-for-profit grass-roots organization established to “further the common good and general welfare of the citizens of the State of Missouri,” applauded the passage of SB 284 in the Senate. Of course you have heard of the Missouri Communications Alliance, or MCA. No? Well, me neither, but with a name like that it must be good.

Turns out, I wasn’t too cynical after all. The MCA is not a grass-roots organization but an example of a disturbing trend in lobbying – the astroturf organization. “Astroturfing” is when a corporation sets up a dummy not-for-profit organization to lobby legislators. These organizations claim to be grass-roots-based groups when in fact they are representing a corporation’s interest.

The Missouri Communications Alliance was established by the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Holtzman & Vogel, which has created numerous astroturf organizations, some of which the Federal Election Commission is investigating. This law firm set up the MCA to help pass SB 284, presumably as part of its work for AT&T. It is difficult to determine which company is really behind the MCA. Identity protection is a major advantage of running astroturf operations through a law firm.

In her letter, Cynthia points out other states are embracing this type of deregulation, implying we can expect similar benefits for Missourians if SB 284 is enacted into law.

Consider what happened in Maryland, where Verizon was allowed to enter into the cable television business last November to bring the benefits of increased competition to consumers. Since then, rates for Verizon television customers have increased by 7.6 percent, rates for Comcast customers have increased by 4 percent and rates for customers of RCN, a regional cable operator, have increased by 15 percent.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, it looks like AT&T will get a state video franchise bill passed this year. But at least the folks in the Georgia Legislature are smart enough not to give it away for free. When they found out that AT&T would gain about $500 million from the passage of the Georgia video franchise bill, the legislators started lining up pet projects for AT&T to fund in exchange for their votes. So far they have gotten a million dollars for the Piedmont Park and another million for the Atlanta History Center. I wish our politicians were at least as good at negotiation as those in Georgia.

Cynthia says we need this deregulation so consumers can access “innovative” new services. But it’s clear the only new video and voice services Cynthia and company want you to access are those from AT&T, Mediacom and the other telecommunications giants. These companies don’t want services from Vonage, YouTube or Google competing for your eyes and ears. In fact, AT&T has only reluctantly agreed to abide by the concept of network neutrality for the next two years to gain approval for its merger with Bell South.

Network neutrality means a carrier of Internet data like AT&T has to give equal access to all Internet sites and services. It can’t discriminate against certain types of Internet traffic or certain Internet sites. However, in two years all bets are off and AT&T can start blocking out certain services from reaching consumers – namely those services that might truly compete with AT&T’s offerings. Since most Internet traffic flows through AT&T lines at some point, that gives one company huge power to decide what we can access on the Internet and whose innovation will reach consumers.

The hypocrisy is almost too much to bear. When these giant corporations want to undo public regulation to benefit their bottom lines, they are all about the “free market.” But when a technology that is really competitive – and disruptive to their high profits – comes along, they insist regulation is needed to “protect the public” from these services. If you don’t believe me, just check out the astroturf groups they have set up to lobby against network neutrality, nicely named “Hands Off The Internet” and “Net Competition.” With names like that, they must be good, right?

I am confident SB 284 will pass and become law. I am just as confident it will not lead to increased consumer choice, more broadband access to rural and poor communities, more local programming or cheaper rates. AT&T and the cable industry are wagging the system in Jefferson City, and they will win because policy today is largely determined by who has the most money to spend. Like many bills that will pass this session, SB 284 is a bought bill – bought by AT&T to advance its interests at the expense of the public interest.