Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Big Ed: Gone But Not Forgotten

AT&T chief Ed Whitacre handed the keys over to his replacement Randall Stephenson yesterday, but not before giving a rousing pep talk to fellow executives in the company's San Antonio board room. We just received "exclusive" video of the AT&T chairman's parting speech.

>> Watch Big Ed's Swan Song

Ed Whitacre Bids Fond Farewell:

Watch the Video

"There's a problem. It's called Net Neutrality," Whitacre told the heirs to AT&T's telecommunications empire. "Well, frankly, we say to hell with that. We're gonna put up some toll booths and start charging admission."

This statement echoes those made in the press by Whitacre and Stephenson over the last two years.

Despite claims of poverty whenever pressed to offer better services, these AT&T execs are privately gloating over more than $35 billion in gross profits over the last 12 months. Moreover, Whitacre (and now Stephenson) are pressuring Congress to allow them to provide privileged Web access to their customers to companies that pay them a special fee.

The phone and cable companies claim that this sort of discriminatory “double dipping” — charging both consumers and content providers — is necessary to provide the high-speed services that Americans demand. But it's a fundamental shift in the neutral way the Internet has always worked. In essence, it takes away user choice — the most basic tenet of the Internet -- and hands it to AT&T.

"Will Congress let us do it?" Whitacre asks his colleagues. "You bet they will -- cuz we don't call it cashin' in. We call it 'deregulation.' "

'Deregulation': AT&T Code for More Handouts

It's Whitacre's brand of "deregulation" that has left the United States behind other nations in providing fast, affordable Internet to more people.

Recent broadband data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) had the U.S. slipping to 15th out of 30 nations in per capita broadband use. Our free-fall will continue as long as we allow phone and cable companies to dictate broadband policy in Washington and monopolize broadband access across the country.

From his high perch atop AT&T, Whitacre's view of the Internet had more to do with plumping up margins than delivering faster, more open and affordable services to more Americans. He understood that to dominate new media, AT&T needed to exploit its control of this "last mile" of broadband access into tens of millions of American homes. To get there, he was more than willing to scrap the fundamental principle that had made the Internet a beacon for free speech and economic innovation.

Such corporate brinksmanship, however, didn't sit well with those of us who actually use the Internet to connect with others. (Whitacre reportedly had no computer on his desk and tasked his secretary to check his email). Whitacre probably never expected he'd collide with a new but resilient foe -- engaged Internet users -- and ignite a brushfire that would forever alter the debate about the future of the Internet.

Igniting the Netroots

For speaking out about his scheme to control the Web, Whitcare can be credited for forging a forceful opposition to business as usual in Washington policymaking. His words galvanized the first groups that would forge an alliance around the issue of Net Neutrality.

By the summer of 2006, hundreds of groups from across the political spectrum had joined. More than 1.5 million online activists signed a petition to Congress, and thousands of bloggers took up the cause. This unlikely alliance, in the words of Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), instilled the "fear of voters" in the hearts of Washington politicians.

Yet even now, Whitacre remains intent to defy public opinion, funnel cash into Washington and win over control of the Internet once and for all.

"With all of our generous campaign contributions, I'm quite certain that Congress will see it our way," he said during his farewell speech. "Who else they gonna listen to? The public?!?"

Fortunately for everyone else, the public is making itself heard. Just yesterday we flooded the FCC with more than a quarter-million comments demanding that our airwaves be made available for a more open, ubiquitous and cheap Internet. We also called on the federal agency to keep this valuable new resource out of the hands of price-gouging phone and cable companies like AT&T.

Thousands more are telling their stories to the FCC, taking action to ensure that phone and cable companies do not block, interfere with or discriminate against any lawful Internet traffic.

The stories are still pouring in as more people take this issue to heart, demanding that we create a faster, affordable, more democratic Internet for everyone and stop one of the country's most powerful corporate lobbies from setting the agenda in Washington.

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