Audrie Krause
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Connecting Policy to Community Programs Audrie Krause is a longtime consumer advocate and founder of NetAction, an Internet-based non-profit organization working to promote the use of technology for grassroots organizing and advocacy, and to educate and mobilize consumers to support sound public policy on information technology issues.

Audrie Krause

For grassroots groups working to ensure access to affordable technology at the local level, the complex and frequently confusing telecommunications policy debates taking place at the state and national level might seem very remote. It's a daunting enough task putting people together with computers and keeping the doors open. Making time to understand and speak out on convoluted regulatory issues is, understandably, a low priority for people who are working to ensure that everyone in our communities has access to technology.

But the outcome of those high-stakes policy debates is going to determine who ultimately has access to what technology. So it is important to understand the policy debate because sooner or later it will impact the programs in our communities.

NetAction publishes two electronic newsletters, NetAction Notes, which addresses the use of technology as a tool for organizing and advocacy, and the Micro$oft Monitor, which educates consumers about the Microsoft antitrust case and open source software issues. Audrie recently launched Consumer Choice, with support from long distance telecommunications interests, to organize opposition to the SBC-Ameritech merger. To find out more, check out .

By now, it is apparent to almost everyone who uses a telephone that the much-touted Telecommunications Act of 1996 hasn't produced the results Congress was looking for. Instead of competition, we have mergers. Instead of lowering the cost of services, we are seeing price rises in everything from basic phone service to cable and Internet access. In most communities, residential phone customers are no closer to having a choice of service providers than they were three years ago.

Consumer advocacy organizations like the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, and state-based Citizens Utility Boards have researched the legal and economic issues, and argued the consumers' case in formal regulatory proceedings. But their resources are limited, their opponents' pockets are deep, and they don't always have the "people power" to demonstrate widespread support for their positions. That's where our community-based groups can make a difference. By speaking out in support of consumer needs, we can help to ensure that the benefits of structural changes in the telecommunications industry don't stop at the door to the corporate board room, but reach all the way into the neglected corners of our communities.

Right now, there is an important decision pending where community groups can make a difference — the proposed takeover of Ameritech by SBC. The Illinois Commerce Commission, as well as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), are weighing the pros and cons through late June. By voicing our support for consumer positions, we can make a difference.

There are lots of reasons why the merger is a bad idea. SBC has a reputation for being the most anticompetitive of the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) and has vigorously opposed efforts to ensure that savings from takeovers are passed on to consumers. Also, the company's track record after previous takeovers has been poor.

If the merger is approved, it will have immediate impacts in the regions where SBC and Ameritech provide service. But over time, it will also affect telecommunications services — including affordable access to technology — in the rest of the country. Like the telecommunications infrastructure itself, it's all connected.

If the FCC does approve the merger, public interest groups have recommended that the approval be subject to various conditions intended to promote increased access to telecommunications services, including information technology.

The Benton Foundation and OMB Watch have recommended that approval of the merger be subject to conditions which would help close the "digital divide," prevent delays in bringing high-bandwidth services to low-income communities, as well as increase the number of households receiving basic telephone service.

The Illinois Citizens Utility Board (CUB) and other consumer groups are recommending that the merger be subject to a requirement that local phone service be opened to competition. Long distance companies are asking that federal access charges be significantly reduced, with the savings passed on to consumers. These access charges cost consumers more than $15 billion annually, and reducing them would help promote local phone competition in addition to saving consumers money.

The consumer arguments have been made. In cases like this, a letter, a phone call, or an email message to key decision makers can be helpful.

If the decision has not yet been made when you read this, comments can be emailed directly to the FCC Commissioners at the following addresses, with this subject line: "Comments on CC Dkt. No 98-141."

Chairman William Kennard:

Commissioner Susan Ness:

Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth:

Commissioner Michael Powell:

Commissioners Gloria Tristani:

The following web sites have information about the concerns that consumer groups have raised regarding the SBC-Ameritech merger:

Benton/OMB Watch:

FCC info:

Illinois CUB:


Consumers Union:

For information on how to send email comments to the FCC more formally, see .