Cary Williams
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In the Public Interest: Telecommunications Policy in Ohio
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Cary Williams is Coordinator of the Ohio Community Computing Center Network, PO Box 82247, Columbus, OH 43202, 614/262-5634.
Cary Williams

In recent years, activists following Ohio telecommunications policy have secured funding through the regulatory process for technology access for low-income consumers in several cases. But perhaps the most important result over the last four years of active participation in this process has been the recognition by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) staff and regulators that the digital divide exists and that funds provided by telecommunications companies to address inequities are in the public interest.

In Ohio, three cases have resulted in settlements with funding for community computing -- an Ameritech rate case in 1995, a Cincinnati Bell Telephone rate case in 1998, and most recently the Ameritech/SBC merger case, for which federal approval is still pending.

Ohio Rate Case Settlements

The Edgemont Neighborhood Coalition is a grassroots organization located in the Edgemont neighborhood of Dayton, Ohio. Edgemont is a community with high poverty and unemployment rates. Linda Broadus, Edgemont's executive director, became aware of the potential for harm and the opportunities for benefit in the telecommunications arena around the same time the 1996 Telecommunications Act was being debated in Congress. Edgemont retained Ellis Jacobs of the Legal Aid Society of Dayton, and together, they began looking at proceedings before both the FCC and the PUCO where the issues of telecommunications access, economic development and educational opportunities could be addressed.

The first opportunity came in 1995 when Ameritech filed a rate change application with the PUCO. Because of the legal standards that telecommunications companies have to meet in order to satisfy regulatory bodies that their actions are in the public interest, Edgemont began to argue that to be in the public interest, companies must do something to address the digital divide. This argument was addressed in a settlement in September 1994. The settlement with Ameritech included, among other things, $2.2 million to open 14 computer centers around Ohio. The Ohio Community Computing Center Network (OCCCN), originally made up of municipal representatives from the seven cities and towns that joined in the PUCO negotiations, was started to manage the funds and oversee the selection and evaluation of the centers.

California Update

Computers in Our Future (CIOF) is a community-based initiative in California working to increase access to computer technology, training and jobs for young people in low income communities. Through a five-year, $6 million grant from The California Wellness Foundation, eleven community technology centers expect to reach approximately 27,000 low income residents.

One of CIOF's priorities is to promote a state-based policy agenda whose goal is to assure that low income communities are not left out of the information revolution. Toward this end, the CIOF statewide effort in California is developing its policy agenda which will be available by late June. Key elements of this agenda include:

  1. Directing technology resources to community-based organizations in low income neighborhoods;

  2. Enabling low-income communities to create content for the on-line world; and

  3. Raising the technology fluency/information literacy levels of low income communities.

For more on CIOF and its progress in policy advocacy, please visit its web site at .

Roxana U. Barillas is a Policy Associate with the Children's Partnership in Santa Monica, CA

Digital Divide Campaign Targets Merger for Organizing in Illinois

Meeting among themselves and before the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) and holding public meetings and press conferences, a coalition of community, education, and business groups has been organizing in the state to "Bridge the Digital Divide."

The Coalition proposes the commitment of major community telecommunication investment by Ameritech/SBC as part of their merger application to the ICC and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Coalition leaders include the Community Workshop on Economic Development (Willie Hayes and Johnnie Cole), the Center for Neighborhood Technology (Sharon Feigon and Peter Haas), City Innovation (Layton Olson), Neighborhood Learning Networks (Don Samuelson), the Central Advisory Council of Chicago Housing Authority (Joyce Morgan), and the Policy Research Action Group (Martin Mercado).

Coalition members see the merger as an opportunity for Illinois to create a Community Technology Fund to aid in:

targeting telecommunication awareness in disadvantaged communities

expanding computer learning in communities, public housing, schools and libraries

building on-going Local Area Networks of community-education-business partnerships which can provide low-cost products and services in at least 24 key areas in Illinois, with a focus on inner city, inner suburban, and older downstate areas.

For more information, visit the Bridging Digital Divide website at  or contact Don Samuelson .

Two years later, a similar opportunity presented itself when Cincinnati Bell Telephone filed a rate change proceeding before the PUCO. In this case, $90,000 was provided to OCCCN to fund computer centers in the greater Cincinnati area.

Then again, in mid-1998, Edgemont was presented with another opportunity to address the digital divide when Ameritech announced its plans to merge with SBC. According to Jacobs, this merger posed particular concerns to low-income communities. Edgemont's experience was that the larger companies got, the farther away the headquarters are, the more competitive global ventures they engage in, and the less inclined they are to look at and invest in low-income customers and communities, like the Edgemont neighborhood.

The Regulatory Process

In July 1998, two months after Ameritech and SBC Communications announced plans to merge, the companies filed notice with the PUCO, the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Edgemont, along with more than a dozen other parties, immediately filed to intervene. From July 1998 until January 1999, when hearings began, the process of discovery and case preparation took place.

Hearings began in January and went on for three weeks. During this time, parties brought witnesses forward to help prove their case. Witnesses for Edgemont included Roger Colton, a national expert on rate and customer service issues involving telephone utilities. After three weeks of hearings, those involved agreed to try to settle the case. Negotiations went on for several weeks, and some of the parties involved reached a settlement on February 23. The settlement provided a number of consumer benefits and charitable contributions including:

Community computing -- $1 million to the OCCCN for computer centers
Technology fund -- $2.25 million for a technology access fund
Consumer education -- $2.25 million for a community education fund
Community contributions -- $6 million for Ohio non-profits

It is important to note that not all parties signed the agreement. Signers included Ameritech, SBC, staff of the PUCO, Edgemont, Ohio Consumers' Council, and the Parkview Areawide Seniors organization in Cleveland. Other groups remained in opposition and refused to sign. Still others, including some telecommunications companies, signed as non-opposing.

The stipulation agreement was submitted to PUCO regulators for approval in February. On April 8 regulators approved the agreement, leaving the approval of two more regulatory bodies before the merger is final -- the ICC and the FCC.

FCC review has provided an opportunity for activists to again get involved. In April, FCC Chairman William Kennard sent a letter to the Ameritech and SBC chairmen stating the FCC's concerns that the merger does not satisfy the requirement that it be in the public interest. Kennard suggested having discussions on conditions that would insure this would be the case

This letter opened the way for additional "input" on the merger. Many organizations, including Edgemont, the OCCCN, and other computer centers in Ohio, filed letters with the FCC asking the FCC to include conditions as a part of the merger. Other organizations filed letters with the FCC asking that the merger not be approved at all. It is promising that the FCC is considering conditions to insure that the public interest is being satisfied when reviewing a merger. An FCC decision is expected by late June.

"How To" Tips

According to Jacobs, there will be cases like these in all states that activists need to pay attention to. The timeline in these cases can move quickly, and others wanting to address the digital divide through regulatory bodies must be ready to act. Some of the key steps to keep in mind include:

Prove your case. During initial hearings, show that what you are contending -- that the merger is not in public interest because of the digital divide -- by bringing knowledgeable and credible witnesses and by cross-examining company witnesses. Through this, Edgemont documented what low-income communities might miss and what the remedies might be. You must put on a case.
Allocate your resources wisely. It is not always difficult to get standing in a case. What is harder is to keep up with the case, using often limited resources in a strategic way. You must be prepared to follow filings and stay on top of the case.
Educate regulators. Intervening groups must expect a time period needed to educate regulators on the digital divide. You will first need to raise the issue, and provide documentation and evidence to support your position. You may not accomplish a positive outcome the first time around. In the current ABC/Ameritech merger case, PUCO staff were already well-educated on the issue and open to the arguments.
Build alliances. Its helps your credibility and with negotiations to be part of an alliance. You should be working to position yourself with community organizations, consumer advocacy group, and civil rights organizations. Some of the alliances that Edgemont has made in the various cases it has participated in include the Ohio Consumers Council, the American Association for Retired Persons, and a number of welfare rights organizations.