March 9, 2005

Illinois citizens fight newly introduced pro-industry state Telecom Bill

For months, citizens have anticipated a rewrite of the Illinois Telecommunications Act, the major state law in Illinois concerning the internet and telecommunications technologies like telephone and cable television.

On Thursday, March 3, 2005, a new rewrite of the Illinois Telecommunications Act was indeed introduced before the Illinois General Assembly. But the proposed rewrite has caused much concern among community organizers.

"It creates massive public subsidies for incumbent telecom companies...and...guts the last vestiges of public service and protections against price gouging," said Sascha Meinrath, an organizer on telecommunications issues and a policy analyst with the non-partisan media policy group Free Press.

The bill in question, Senate Bill 1700, includes a number of proposed pro- telecom-industry changes. These include striking out language assuring "just and reasonable" charges by telecommunications carriers, as well as strikeouts of public interest protections and assurances to "reasonable and timely development of effective competition in all telecommunications service markets."

The bill has already galvanized opposition. Citizens Utility Board, a consumer protection lobby working on Illinois utilities, has already assembled an online action website ( for Illinois citizens to fax and email their elected officials quickly.

A forum about communities and broadband internet in Peoria which plans to convene on March 10 includes participants of a statewide citizens' coalition group known as Get Illinois Online.

Plans are also afoot to organize other forums across Illinois about the telecom act. But such forums would have to be organized quickly, as the rewrite would have to be completed by the anticipated end of the Illinois General Assembly in May 2005.

"The only good thing I can say [about the rewrite] is that it doesn't appear to make muni networks illegal," Meinrath remarked on the emailing list of Get Illinois Online, referring to local and municipal efforts by Illinois communities to establish their own internet infrastructure.

The Chicago City Council is galvanizing efforts to approve city-wide efforts in Chicago, after a city Finance Committee hearing on the issue approved efforts to study the matter.

A number of organizers feared that the Telecom rewrite would squelch efforts for such community internet efforts outright, including those already underway in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood and in Champaign-Urbana as part of a nascent community wireless network.

One bill, Senate Bill 499, which would have done just that, has been pulled from consideration for the time being.

The senator who introduced the proposed telecom rewrite is Democrat James F. Clayborne, Jr, the Majority Caucus Whip.

According to an online database assembled by The Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan state campaign finance research organization, Clayborne has received campaign contributions from a number of major telecommunications interests.

Clayborne's contributors include SBC, which contributed $4,000; AT&T, which is in merger proceedings with SBC and which contributed $7,000; and the Cable Television and Communications Association of Illinois, an industry group representing Illinois cable companies, which contributed $5,000.