SNAP CALL

City Hall makes a quick pick in an ugly battle over Internet and phone service. Prepare to pay the price.

Carolyn Seward, executive director of Missourians for Open Internet Access, says anyone who uses computers has a natural interest in open access. "We're saying, "Listen, AT&T. You should allow customers and consumers to choose the ISP of their choice,'" she says. "A customer should have the choice and the right to pick any ISP of their choice and pay one time for it."

Seward's group is funded by Southwestern Bell, which causes AT&T and Slavin to dismiss the group as Astroturf -- fake grassroots support. Several disability groups also lent their support to the open-access law, but that, too, is tainted by Southwestern Bell money.

David Newburger, a St. Louis attorney known for representing disability groups, urged aldermen to pass the law on the grounds that AT&T can't be trusted to make the Internet accessible to the disabled community. "I'm an advocate as opposed to a lobbyist," he says. "Paraquad and Missouri Council of the Blind and Missouri Association of the Deaf are the groups we do this with."

Mayor Clarence Harmon, an early supporter of open access, says past cable scandals were one reason he delayed signing the open-access bill for two weeks. "I was initially concerned it was dealt with so quickly by the Board of Aldermen," he says. "I became convinced it wouldn't stifle competition."
Jennifer Silverberg
Mayor Clarence Harmon, an early supporter of open access, says past cable scandals were one reason he delayed signing the open-access bill for two weeks. "I was initially concerned it was dealt with so quickly by the Board of Aldermen," he says. "I became convinced it wouldn't stifle competition."

However, according to disclosure documents maintained by the state Public Service Commission, Southwestern Bell paid Newburger $300,000 between 1995 and 1997 for "consulting and research services." So it amy not be surprising that the positions he takes on behalf of the disabled consistently align with the interests of Southwestern Bell.

Newburger last year urged the FCC to disapprove the merger of AT&T and TCI. Last summer, he urged the FCC to approve the buyout of Ameritech by SBC Communications, parent company to Southwestern Bell. In a legal brief to the FCC supporting the buyout, Newburger's advocacy group, called Campaign for Telecommunications Access, said telephone companies are "the only clear last hope for bringing broadband technology the last mile to our homes and neighborhoods."

Slavin considers Newburger a hired gun for Southwestern Bell. "It's a meal ticket," she says. "He has convinced himself to some extent he's doing this as a disability issue. Quite honestly, people who are homebound and want high- speed broadband, they'll be benefited by AT&T upgrading the system."

Newburger two years ago fought an FCC decision that required phone companies to reduce their charges to long-distance carriers such as MCI, which were subsidizing local residential service by paying inflated access fees to local phone companies. In a 1997 letter to U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) blasting MCI, Newburger sounds eerily like the cable companies who now say they shouldn't be required to let everyone on a network they paid for. "What MCI wants from you and the FCC is a proverbial free lunch," Newburger wrote. "Indeed, its gambit is to get federal rules that assure it a virtually free ride on the backs of residential local telephone customers. If MCI doesn't like what it has to pay for local telephone service delivery of their customers' calls, it should build its own local network." That same year, Newburger was paid $70,000 by Southwestern Bell, according to Public Service Commission records.

Newburger doesn't flinch at lobbying on behalf of the disabled while taking money from the phone company. "We don't hide that fact," he says. "They like what we say, and so sometimes we get money here and there. I don't want to mislead you in the slightest. The campaign and the work that we've done in telecommunications, we have gone to telephone companies and we have said we are natural allies; please support what we're doing. We have gotten support and that's a continuing matter. Telephone companies have given money for our campaign even currently."

The cable companies snicker at the idea that phone companies are the natural allies of the disabled. "Isn't that funny how that happens," says Celeste Vossmeyer, a Charter Communications spokeswoman. AT&T feels the same way. "I think it's just kind of a joke saying he would go around saying he was representing the handicapped when he was getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from this other source," says Steve Weber, an AT&T lobbyist. "Follow the money."

Sheri Keller, executive director of Missouri Council for the Blind, says her support for open access is genuine. Blind people need specialized Internet service, such as icons that provide audio prompts. "Point-and-click doesn't work too well for us," she says. Keller thinks competition between Internet service providers would address the needs of the blind better than @Home. "I have an MBA," she says. "What would you expect?"

St. Louis has a dismal history when it comes to dealing with cable companies. The city was the last municipality in the region to receive cable television, thanks to bungling by the Board of Aldermen while awarding a cable franchise in the early 1980s. Cable television had been available in surrounding areas for two years before the Board of Aldermen finally awarded a cable franchise in 1984 after a decade of talking about cable systems. Four Democratic Party power brokers and Aldermanic President Thomas Zych were indicted on federal charges of extorting cable companies seeking the franchise. Zych was acquitted, and the other indictments were eventually dropped.

But the memory remains. Mayor Harmon, an early supporter of open access, says past cable scandals were one reason he delayed signing the open-access bill for two weeks. He admits having second thoughts after first endorsing open access in an Oct. 12 letter to the aldermanic Public Utilities Committee. "I was concerned that something untoward had happened, quite frankly," he says. "I was initially concerned it was dealt with so quickly by the Board of Aldermen. That doesn't necessarily signal a good turn of events, as prior history has indicated with cable bills and gaming and the rest of that. I tried to take my time with it. In finality, I became convinced it wouldn't stifle competition."

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