By Mary Spicuzza
WI State Journal
May 11, 2011
A bill to deregulate Wisconsin’s telecommunications industry passed the state Senate on Wednesday.
Argument over the legislation broke out largely along party lines, with Republicans saying it would bring better Internet access and more competition among businesses and Democrats arguing it would lead to higher rates and worse service.
“This legislation ensures that we are not playing favorites among technologies,” said state Sen. Rich Zipperer, R-Pewaukee.
Zipperer, the bill’s main Senate sponsor, said corporate competition would help the state advance technology and move on from the “monopoly era” when one company had control of the industry. He and other Republicans said consumers would be better served if the industry is deregulated.
But state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, and some other Democrats argued the measure would leave customers vulnerable to rate increases and worse phone and Internet service.
“The service quality will become poorer and poor and the price will be higher and higher,” she said.
Vinehout also argued that rural areas will be particularly hard hit by the measure, and warned GOP lawmakers were pitting urban against rural.
“We’re picking winners and losers,” she said.
Democrats offered numerous amendments to the bill to include some consumer protections, but they were rejected by the GOP.
Zipperer and bill supporters argue that the legislation is long overdue, saying it would be the first changes to the state’s telecommunications rules in about 20 years.
During the floor debate, the Republican senator praised former state Sen. Jeff Plale, who had pushed for deregulation during the last session.
But state Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said Plale’s telecommunications legislation is part of why he was able to defeat the Democratic incumbent from South Milwaukee in the primary election. Larson sai dhte bill was “put together in secrety behind closed doors” and “cut off regular folks.”
Vinehout agreed and said the bill, which is backed by powerhouses like AT&T Wisconsin, was effectively drafted by industry lobbyists.
Under the bill, the Public Service Commission could no longer determine telecommunication rates, audit providers or investigate complaints from consumers about their service.
The commission also would be prohibited from regulating additional services like high-speed Internet and broadband.
The measure passed 25-8 on a bipartisan vote. It now heads to the state Assembly.