NASHVILLE - House Speaker Kent Williams said Monday he remains concerned consumers in rural communities and elsewhere may see their phone bills go up under an AT&T-backed bill that largely deregulates the telecommunications giant at the state level.
"That's my biggest concern," Speaker Williams said. "Right now we have a system in play that protects the consumer. I'm worried that by deregulating that, well, there won't be any protection."
His comments came following a sometimes stormy meeting in which lawmakers, AT&T executives, cable industry executives, Tennessee Regulatory Authority directors, the state Consumer Advocate Division and lobbyists sought to hash out a compromise.
"For a communications bill, there's not a lot of communication," observed former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, at one point after participants continued to try to talk over each other.
AT&T Tennessee President Gregg Morton said the cable industry and other companies competing with AT&T are trying to prevent the company from offering bundled services at lower rates than its competitors.
"CommSouth and cable want to prevent me from being able to go to that customer and saying I can save you money. ... If I do, they want to haul me in front of the TRA and put me out of business," he complained.
He and AT&T corporate counsel Joelle Phillips said the regulatory system under which the company operates no longer makes sense in a telecommunications environment in which cable, cell phone companies and other phone service providers including EPB in Chattanooga largely go unregulated at the state level.
But the cable industry and some telephone providers who utilize AT&T lines are wary of anti-competitive behavior by the company.
"We're trying to work through the issue of enforcement and penalties on carrier to carrier complaints," said Stacey Briggs of the Tennessee Cable & Telecommunications Association.
During the meeting, Tennessee Regulatory Commission Chairman Eddie Roberson said he was "much more comfortable" with how the bill would allow TRA to continue to referee consumer complaints following discussions with AT&T.
But fellow TRA Director Sara Kyle charged AT&T's bill would grant the company the freedom of the lightly regulated payday loan industry in Tennessee, denounced by some groups as "predatory" in nature.
"I will not sit here and tell you that oversight will be had by government agencies," Director Kyle said. "It'll be check-cashing (loans) all over again. I'm telling you we have a process in place. I've tried to raise my concerns. I haven't seen these amendments. I don't get notices to meetings."
The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, told the group he hopes to get the compromise amendment attached today in the House Commerce Committee and move the bill out next week.
"We'd rather move it with everyone understanding it and liking it rather than not liking it," said Rep. McCormick, who argued the bill does benefit consumers. "We don't want to cram anything down anybody's throat. However, I think if it gets to a point where we feel like people are trying to sabotage the whole process, then we're going to charge forth."