State regulators couldn't investigate consumer complaints or oversee phone rates under a bill the state Legislature passed Wednesday that would deregulate Wisconsin's telecommunications industry.
The Assembly approved the Republican bill 80-13. The Senate passed it earlier Wednesday on a 25-8 vote. The proposal now goes to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who will sign it into law, his spokesman said.
The changes would mark the first updates to Wisconsin's telecommunications statutes in nearly 20 years. Supporters insist the plan will eliminate outdated red tape, create more competition and encourage providers to invest in wider access to broadband. That, they say, will enable businesses to operate faster and hire thousands of new workers.
Opponents scoffed, saying the bill would gut consumer protections and lead to higher phone bills with little in return. Providers will continue to neglect broadband in rural areas to serve urban centers with more people, they said.
"We're pitting urban against rural," said Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma. "The consumer has absolutely no recourse under this bill."
Republicans drafted the plan at Walker's request and secured support from industry powerhouses including AT&T Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association. They say the plan mirrors similar changes in a number of other states, including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.
The proposal would block the state Public Service Commission from investigating consumer complaints about providers and strip it of its authority to set rates. The commission would be prohibited from auditing providers and regulating data services such as high-speed Internet service.
Providers wouldn't have to give the commission any information about their prices and service terms. They also wouldn't have to provide service throughout a territory after 2013.
"We're ready to keep up with the technology," said Sen. Rich Zipperer, R-Pewaukee, one of the bill's chief sponsors. "First and foremost, this is a job creation bill."
Democrats from rural districts complained that deregulation could lead providers to increase landline phone bills, hurting those who haven't moved into the wireless world because their area lacks coverage. Worse, they said, the bill allows providers to pick up stakes in 2013 if they choose.
"(Passing the bill) signals the body doesn't care about the public," said Sen. Bob Jauch, a Democrat from Poplar in far northern Wisconsin. "That seems to be the mentality. Let people fend for themselves."
A number of Democrats in both chambers, including Assembly Minority Leader Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, supported the measure. A nearly identical bill passed the Assembly last year with bipartisan support.
"It was a good bill then, it's a good bill now," said Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, the measure's lead sponsor in the Assembly.