The telecommunications industry is working hard to kill a cell phone reform bill at the Minnesota legislature that would guarantee customers accurate information about billing and service area coverage. And it’s using an industry front organization masquerading as a grassroots citizens’ group to do the deed.
Cell phone billing practices and service area coverage limits are among the top consumer complaints both in Minnesota and nationwide. The Minnesota Wireless Telephone Consumer Protection Act (S.F. 833) would require wireless phone salespeople to provide a coverage map to customers at the time of sale, to clearly state both price and fees at the time of sale and to indicate whether that price will remain the same throughout the contract. In addition, providers would have to lay out any early termination fees, and separately list government taxes and fees on billing statements.
The telecom industry has responded by using a nonprofit faux-grassroots organization to spread disinformation about the bill and to encourage unsuspecting consumers to send e-mails opposing its passage to legislators. Mywireless.org presents itself as “a non-profit consumer advocacy organization” that gives wireless consumers “a powerful and unified voice to protect the freedom, value, security and mobility they enjoy with wireless services.”
But in fact, Mywireless.org is staffed almost entirely by telecommunications industry executives, drawn mainly from the ranks of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (also known as CTIA-The Wireless Association), a lobbying group for the mobile phone and telecommunications industry headed by Steve Largent, the former football star and Oklahoma Republican congressman (1994-2002). (There’s more information about Mywireless’ officers below the jump.)
In Minnesota, Mywireless has employed a three-pronged strategy to fight the cell phone reform bill:
* placing ads in outlets such as Startribune.com urging consumers to oppose the bill.
* encouraging the public to send a canned and misleading e-mail message condemning the bill to their legislators. The e-mail’s text suggests that the bill would mean higher costs: “Minnesotans already pay over 12% in combined federal, state and local wireless taxes, surcharges and government fees on our cell phone bills each month. Placing additional regulation on wireless service will only drive up our monthly bills even more.”
* lobbying at the Capitol.
On the last count, Minnesota lobbyists for Mywireless.org include Chris Tiedeman, Republican strategist, blogger for the Party of Pawlenty blog, and friend and regular radio guest of Republican operative Michael Brodkorb. In addition, Greg Johnson of Weber Johnson Public Affairs, a company that works for corporate and Republican interests, is a lobbyist for Mywireless.org. Johnson’s other lobbying clients at the Minnesota Capitol include Exxon Mobil Corp., General Motors Corp., and Goldman Sachs. Brian Johnston of Washington, D.C., is also a lobbyist for Mywireless.org at the Minnesota Capitol.
Though dominated by CTIA, the Mywireless.org coalition comprises more than 30 organizations that include 16 chambers of commerce along with sharply right-wing organizations such as the American Conservative Union, Center for Individual Freedom and Frontiers of Freedom. Mywireless.org has also spread its coins generously among some of the pillars of the anti-tax, anti-regulation right through its “grants.” The Heritage Foundation has received funds from Mywireless.org, as did the Hispanic Alliance for Progress Institute, an organization founded by President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of the Interior, Manuel Lujan, Jr.
FreedomWorks, an outfit led by Republican heavyweights such as former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp (for whom Mywireless.org executive director Kim Kuo once worked) and former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, have gotten Mywireless.org grants, as has anti-tax radical Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, which in 2006 was implicated in super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s influence-peddling scandal.
One Minnesota legislator who got inundated by the Astro Turf e-mailing campaign, Sen. John Marty, railed against the group’s efforts in a note to constituents and supporters:
This year Minnesota legislators have received countless emails urging us to oppose Senate File 833, which “threatens the affordability and accessibility of (cell phone) services for all of Minnesota’s families and businesses.”
To stimulate public opposition to this, the cell phone industry’s ad campaign showed a picture of a frustrated woman looking over a document labeled “State Wireless Taxes and Fees” with a caption: “So why are state legislators threatening to increase the cost of our wireless?”
But there was nothing in the bill that even remotely reflected what one would expect based on the lobbying. It is no more expensive to make the terms of a contract transparent than to hide billing and pricing practices from the consumer. Honest disclosure does not cost more.
Most consumers who contacted legislators would support preventing cell phone companies from deceptive practices. Yet the wireless companies lied to the public, convincing many to oppose a bill they would support if they saw the legislation.
In the House, the bill has passed three committees and is awaiting a hearing in the Committee on Rules and Legislative Administration, and in the Senate, the bill has passed two committees and awaits a hearing in the Business, Industry and Jobs Committee.
Mywireless.org’s executive officers
Steve Largent is the board chairman for Mywireless.org. He is also the president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association. Prior to his experiences lobbying for telecom interests, he was an NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver and a Republican Congress member from Oklahoma.
Jot Carpenter is the director for Mywireless.org. He is also vice president of government affairs for CTIA. Previously, Carpenter held a similar role at AT&T and worked for a Republican member of Congress.
John Walls is secretary of the board of Mywireless.org and vice president of public affairs for CTIA. Before that, he was an anchor for Fox Sports Net.
David Eisenberg, the treasurer for Mywireless.org, worked for Sprint and Centel for a total of 21 years previously.
Kimberly Kuo, the executive director of Mywireless.org, is a past vice president of communications for CTIA and a former executive at enfoTrust, a mobile services and telecom company based in Georgia. She also served as press secretary for campaigns by Republicans Jack Kemp and Bob Dole.
Bobby Franklin is a director for Mywireless.org. He is also the executive vice president of CTIA. Prior to CTIA and Mywireless.org, Franklin was a lobbyist for telecom Alltel. He also worked for a Democratic Congress member.