Federal

Telecom Changes

Uh oh.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the FCC has approved the merger of Bellsouth and AT&T:

The Federal Communications Commission approved AT&T Inc.’s $85 billion takeover of BellSouth Corp. Friday, after the telecom giant offered a series of major concessions to consumer groups and regulators.

The agency approved the deal, the largest ever in U.S. telecommunications history, by a unanimous 4-0 vote. The merger creates a behemoth that will have a market capitalization of over $220 billion — more than double that of nearest rival Verizon Communications Inc. — and will serve 67.5 million local phone customers in 22 states, as well as 11.5 million broadband users.

The FCC released a statement saying that “significant public interest benefits are likely to result from this transaction.”

Approval of the deal was never in serious doubt, but it was held up for months because of objections from consumer groups and Democrats.

AT&T broke the logjam by proposing a series of conditions this week that won over the Democrats, including a pledge not to prioritize any Internet content provider’s traffic over another’s, a principle known as “net neutrality.” Lawmakers, consumer activists and some Internet companies said that without such regulation, AT&T would be able to strike deals guaranteeing Internet companies like Google Inc. higher quality or faster transmissions than other providers. (Read AT&T’s filing.)

The net neutrality condition applies to the portion of AT&T’s network that connects consumers’ homes to the Internet backbone. Special data and voice networks used by corporate customers would not be subject to the rules and AT&T’s own nascent video offerings would also be exempted.

AT&T also agreed to lower rates for some high-volume voice and data lines that serve corporate customers and are leased on a wholesale basis to smaller telecom carriers. And it pledged to offer stand-alone high-speed Internet access for up to $20 a month. Companies that offer Internet phone service, like Vonage Holdings Corp., would stand to gain if consumers don’t have to buy their phone service and Internet service in a packaged bundle.

Hmmm.  We’ve been considering switching over to an IP phone service for some time now, but haven’t done so because we 1) don’t like Comcast internet service, and 2) anything else without phone service bundled costs more than phone+DSL.

The next question is, does AT&T offer wireless phone service that’s worth a flip, and if bundled with high-speed internet, do they offer it at a decent rate?

I’m still not very happy with US Cellular, but am waiting out the contract for another couple of months.  However, I’ve yet to find anyone who thinks their cell company provides good customer service.

…and today is Wednesday

BJ is doing better today; stop by Atomictumor.com for updates as AT posts them. But don’t stop the prayers and positive thoughts, as she’s still very sick.

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Control over the US House went to the Democrats last night, and the Senate is still undetermined with the question resting on a final tally from Virginia. Alpha called this morning to note that her roommate, a resident of Lynchburg VA (home of BWXT, which co-manages Y-12 here in Oak Ridge), recognized the importance of that absentee ballot she recently cast.

Yep kiddo, every vote really does matter. You never know which one’s going to be the extra-close one. This election was Alpha’s first to participate, having turned 18 just after the August election… somehow, I think she’ll forever remember the importance of every vote now. That’s a good thing.

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MarketsThe financial markets are down this morning; I don’t know whether that’s simply fear of change, or a fear that (as repeatedly advertised during the campaigns) Democrats will raise taxes. I haven’t run the numbers on the Dem newcomers yet, but seem to recall that a goodly number of them were running as conservative as people I used to call Republicans.

Or, maybe they’re only conservative on social issues. This might worry the markets.

There could be some positive things come out of this change in leadership. For one, neither party should tolerate corruption — the issue that the pollsters are now saying drove the tidal wave. Maybe there will be some changes to No Child Left Behind that actually provide the resources to effect desired results, rather than punitive measures for schools’ inability to force uniform achievement from a non-uniform student body. Maybe there can now be some flexibility in the discussion of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research — like making it illegal to pay the donor for the embryos (much as selling human organs for transplant is illegal), but using only those slated for destruction anyway (primarily in fertility clinics).

I hope that the new congress will not result in a weakening of national defense; while I do not like being at war, I also believe that there are people in this world — both nations and more loosely governed groups — who would like to see us eliminated, and that the only thing stopping them is fear of what we could do if sufficiently provoked. I hope that the new congress will not eliminate the tax cuts of a few years ago, because revenues have actually increased as a result of more investment and velocity in the economy.

Lastly, I hope that this will result in a congress governing more from the center, and less from the fringes of either side.

Sage Advice

David Coffey was our State Representative from 1986-1996, and likely one of the best who ever served in Nashville. He always did his homework, communicated well with the folks back home, and remains knowledgable about a variety of political (and other) issues.

A physicist by training, David began working at ORNL and left early to pursue an invention. The invention grew to a company, then several. He knows what it’s like to take the big risk and start his own business (with young children at home), pay for his own insurance, meet a payroll, then retire and live well. Except that he’s no less busy in retirement — just busy doing other things, especially encouraging others engaged in worthwhile pursuits. There’s a very good reason his name is on the building of the Roane State Oak Ridge campus… without his efforts and his personal commitment, it wouldn’t be there at all.

He’s one of the folks I really listen to, because he knows the difference between brilliance and BS. Every time. So, when I received the following note from him this evening, I thought it worth passing along:

I know Bob Corker

I’ve tried to avoid my old political life, but this senate race is too scary. During my time in the legislature I worked with Bob Corker and found him to be honest, humble and more energetic than any other. The contrast between him and Ford is so great that I’m amazed the race is close. Ford would be a super TV personality. Corker will be a great senator.

Bob Corker says he is a product of his Tennessee life. He has worked as a construction laborer. He built a major business – and jobs – from the ground up. He felt called to charity work and developed an innovative inner city housing program that has built thousands of homes in Chattanooga.

After his state government service, he was an outstanding mayor of Chattanooga where he accepted the challenge to turn the inner city schools around. He did it in record time with another creative program that has brought national attention.

My respect for his achievement with the Chattanooga schools is such that when he indicated his plan to run for the Senate, I volunteered immediately to help, not knowing what primary or general election competition would appear.

Bob is a family man with mature judgment. He will bring our sensible Tennessee values to Washington. I think there is no question but that Bob Corker should get your vote in this close race. I trust Tennesseans; he will win!

David

P.S. I would love for you to pass this on to others who may not have had a chance to get to know Corker. I would be glad to help them meet him.

I’ll personally vouch for the “more energetic than any other” part, because I have a vivid picture in my mind of Bob when he was the State’s Finance Commissioner, running down the hallways of Legislative Plaza with his tie flapping over his shoulder. When he chose to run for Senate, he started with the people he sought to represent — not the Hollywood crowd, or the Washington crowd, as Harold Ford Jr. has.

Without question, this is a tough Republican year. There are some in my party who will not get my vote — and don’t deserve it, because they don’t understand the real issues and don’t have a clue about the real solutions.

Bob Corker does, and he has my full support.

Gone too far?

One should expect security to be tighter in the nation’s capitol than the average small town (even one like Oak Ridge), but this week has been enlightening — in a bad way, in addition to the good fun that I admit I’ve had taking pictures.

It’s no longer possible to tour the White House, unless you submit all your information three months in advance. Touring the capitol requires at least a week’s notice, although you can get a gallery pass (which wouldn’t be worth much this week, since Congress is in recess so there’s nothing going on to watch) on short notice through your congressional office.

The National Aquarium, in the basement of the Commerce building, hasn’t been publicly funded since 1981. Still though, patrons are expected to go through a metal detector and have all purses, backpacks, etc. searched before entry. I’ve gotten used to metal detectors and having my purse rummaged through this week… to the point that I now don’t carry my purse most places. I just put my drivers license and a debit card in my pocket and go on. Every single public building has metal detectors and guards who rummage through purses all day.

To actually look at any books in the Library of Congress — the nation’s most public of public libraries — one must go to a separate building, wait in line to show a drivers license, wait in another line to fill out a form electronically (asking for all the same information as was on the aforementioned drivers license), then wait in yet a third line to have one’s picture taken. Then, you cross the street again to the building with actual books, wait in line for about 20 minutes to be allowed into the line for the metal detectors and searching again.

Posession of the photo library card does not entitle one to check out books from the Library of Congress, just to look at them under the watchful eyes of guards, librarians, and video surveillance.

For all my complaining, I spent the whole morning and part of the afternoon in the local history & genealogy room at the Library of Congress today, and enjoyed it very much. There were a couple of things I would have liked to make copies of, but to do so, one had to purchase a “copier card” and put money on it. Having left my purse at home, the 75 cents in my pocket wouldn’t work — there’s a paper-money minimum for the card.

Yesterday, I spent a few hours in the DAR library, and found some more interesting things. At least two relatives on my dad’s side served in the Revolutionary War.

I wonder what they’d think about where we are now, when the people’s government is no longer open (at least in a practical sense) to the people. Is this the end for which they left home in England or Northern Ireland, fought in the cold, and staked out claims to government-lottery land for veterans in the wild indian country of what is now the East Coast (from Pennsylvania to Georgia) of America?

It’s easy to see where all the homeland security funding has gone, but not so easy to equate it to our being secure. Planes still fly into buildings, school shootings still occur, and crazy little men are still rattling their sabers.

But the US Government is seemingly safe from tourists for the moment.

Behind the Foley Mess

Needless to say, I’m disgusted by Mark Foley’s behavior, and less than pleased that the House of Representatives is unable to punish him in any way (the worst they could do would be to kick him out of Congress, which they can’t, because he already resigned).

I’m gravely disappointed in Speaker Dennis Hastert, whom it appears knew enough, long enough ago, that he should have taken action. Worse, the conspiracy theory about Democrats holding back for an “October surprise” was just transparently blame-shifting.

But, it’s not like there was no election-oriented scheming involved… The Hill reports that it was a Republican staffer who disclosed the e-mails to a source who then acted as an intermediary to the media. In JULY.

That Foley’s scandalous communications came to public light during Congress’s final week in Washington was largely determined by the media outlets which obtained the suspicious e-mails in the middle of the summer, said the person who provided them to reporters several months ago.

So, it wasn’t the Democrats who held this damaging information until it would do the most harm to Republicans in general; it was ABC News.

Foley should be labeled a predator. There’s no evidence that he actually molested anyone, but at the very least, he’s guilty of sexual harassment, and there ought be a registry for people like that. Of course, it’s not really necessary now, since everyone with a pulse knows about it at this point.

Hastert should resign his speakership now, along with any other of the leadership team who knew, and failed to act.

And ABC News should be censured for political gamesmanship by a supposedly unbiased media organization. Their credentials weren’t very good to begin with (in my opinion), but now they’re shot.

It’s time to restore some bipartisan dignity and honesty to our government.

Bush vs. Bush

The New York Times has an excellent article on the Bush brothers’ differing approaches to school improvement. W, as President, ushered in a sweeping change in 2001 known as “No Child Left Behind,” which mandates that all students will demonstrate proficiency by 2014. Failure to meet milestones along the way leads to progressively more punitive sanctions, which can lead to the replacement of a school’s entire staff, or even to takeover of the school by the state.

Jeb, as Governor of Florida, also implemented standards-based reform in his state, but with different methods and incentives: rather than tracking a school’s progress from year to year, it tracks the progress of individual students. Rather than punishment, it offers financial rewards to the schools that excel. Improvement is rewarded, even if it misses the target mark in NCLB.

At last night’s Oak Ridge school board meeting, we reviewed our students’ test scores — and they’re very good. We obviously have a school system to be proud of. However, we also heard from Mark Diemer, who teaches special ed at the elementary level; while he has no problem pushing his students to excel, while he is able to clearly document that they are progressing and learning, knowing that if too many of his students don’t meet the proficiency standard, his whole school could be punished, is extremely stressful.

Mark is a great teacher; year after year he brings his students to their personal best. Who could ask any more?

Remember, we’re talking about children with learning disabilities — some of them very significant. IDEA forced the mainstreaming of students who, due to birth defects or brain damage, have little realistic hope of ever performing at the level of their peers. Holding them to the same standards as everyone else is sort of like telling me (at 5’4″) to go out and compete in the NBA… just because Earl Boykins (5’5″) did it doesn’t mean we all can. i sure can’t.

I support accountability in the public schools based on criterion-referenced testing, and I believe that NCLB has caused us to use testing as a tool for improvement by studying the disaggregated data to identify gaps in learning. It’s working, and improvment is evident. Still, we will never attain 100% perfection when our obligation is to accept all students. In the case of graduation rate standards, the ruling that all students must graduate within four years actually pits the school’s best interest against the student’s best interest in situations where a student would benefit by repeating a grade.
NCLB is up for reauthorization next year; it’s time to make some changes.

Three Bends

As has been the topic of discussion for years, escalated in recent months following Council’s denial of needed funds for the Oak Ridge School system, this city is in need of new revenue in order to adequately fund the level of services desired.

At last night’s City Council meeting, two Council members (Abbatiello and Mosby) changed their votes on zoning for a new Holiday Inn Express, having voted in favor of the project on first reading. Beehan and Golden maintained their opposition, as evidenced by their “no” votes on first reading last month. Given the neighborhood opposition, it was a controversial subject.

Just last week, the Industrial Development Board voted for a 10-year, million-dollar tax abatement for National Fitness Center, a new health club that is already open, operating, and has put one existing health club (Paragon) out of business. Certainly, tax abatements can be used to lure targeted industries that bring employment, or retail businesses that increase the City’s sales tax collections, but the new health club appears to be a zero-sum gain. In Tennessee, no sales taxes are collected on gym memberships, and the jobs brought by National Fitness are not exactly of the caliber to merit a million-dollar lure. Had the IDB said no, would they have closed their doors and left town?

Oak Ridge needs to increase revenues to sustain City services, including traditions such as education, dating back to the City’s earliest years, as well as more recent developments like the rowing course that now attracts regattas of national prominence (for which $100,000 was approved in the Council meeting, following the zoning vote).

We cannot continue the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed without growth. Yet, with every proposal that would bring some measure of added self-sufficiency (translation: not extorting payments from DOE, but generating revenue based on added value), there is a contingent of opposition.

Last night’s Oak Ridger carried an old story with a fresh pulse: development of a portion of the Three Bends region along Melton Hill Lake, designated just under six years ago in a surprise move as a “conservation and wildlife management area” by then-Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson.

It caught the City off guard because parcels 14 (Gallaher Bend) and 15 (Solway Bend) had been designated as self-sufficency parcels by DOE on maps dating back to the 1980’s, when annual assistance payments were ended under the Atomic Energy Communities Act.

Without question, the miles of gently rolling lakefront — once farmland, before the Manhattan Project and later, Oak Ridge — would constitute some of the most valuable residential real estate in the region, if available.  A few dozen million-dollar lakefront homes would surely boost the tax base sufficiently to fund the school sytem, police and fire protection, and keep the library open without pitting one against the other, as occurred this year.

Despite the fact that just one of the three bends would bring enormous change to the City’s economic health, while leaving miles and miles of undisturbed lakefront and forest for conservation and research purposes, expect a fight.

“This land belongs to everyone,” they’ll say, “it’s wrong to put it in private hands.”  But remember, just 65 years ago these lands were in private hands — taken by federal agents from families with names like Freels and Gallaher for the wartime project.  If the land is no longer essential to national defense, it should be returned to private hands through the city that has long endured a federal presence with minimal compenation for the land it occupies.

Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation (AFORR, in this acronym-addicted city) notified Mayor David Bradshaw by letter last June that they had convened a meeting on the subject of the Three Bends’ future; the Mayor responded with a bit of a (well-deserved) smackdown of the group’s proceeding without City input or notice.

Last May, Council showed themselves unwilling to raise taxes to sustain services; in this case, education was the ox that was gored.  Last night, four members (a majority) showed themselves unwilling to grow the tax base in the face of NIMBY opposition.

Will they stand up to those who oppose development of what would be, without question, the most valuable residential property in the City?  With more than enough land to satisfy the needs of both development and conservation, will they stand firm in advocating for the best interest of this City four years from now, when the conservation agreement expires?

Or, will they simply point to the strategic plan and refuse to maintain those things that Oak Ridgers have treasured for so many years?

Four years will be too long to wait for the Oak Ridge Schools, but if we as a City do not plan for the future, it may be too late for the services you hold dear as well.

FCC in a Red Cape

A ZDNet news flash came across a couple of days ago stating that, although an FCC fee on digital subscriber lines (DSL) has been eliminated, neither Bellsouth nor Verizon DSL customers will see a discount.

No big surprise for Bellsouth customers… once there’s an add-on fee, it never goes away even when it goes away.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reports that the FCC has opened a formal inquiry:

Federal regulators have prepared formal inquiries asking Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp., for more information about their decision to keep money high-speed Internet customers would have otherwise gotten back following a government decision that broadband subscribers no longer have to pay into a federal subsidy program.

The letters, which sources said could be sent as early as today, are the first step toward a formal Federal Communications Commission investigation. The inquiry is particularly unwelcome for BellSouth, whose $67 billion acquisition by AT&T Inc. is still pending before the agency. It’s somewhat unlikely the issue would have any significant impact on the merger, which is still being reviewed by staff. But FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was “very upset” by Verizon and BellSouth’s decision to keep the money, an FCC official said.

“The commission takes its obligation to protect consumers very seriously,” said FCC spokesman David Fiske. “Consumers must be provided with clear and non-misleading information so they make accurately access the services for which they are being charged and the costs associated with those services.”

It’s easy to get frustrated with the government, but I’m sure glad someone’s following up on this one. It’s about time.

Retirees in Arms

It’s been a couple of weeks since the pension plan meeting at Pellissippi State between DOE officials and contractor retirees, but the struggle isn’t over.

In fact, the candor displayed by the headquarters designee (see Munger’s column in the Sentinel today) may have invigorated those interested. For the uninitiated, the essence of the retirees’ complaint is that their pension amounts have remained stagnant for years, with no adjustment for cost of living.

Walter Hedge’s letter to the editor (also today) summed it up nicely:

An unbelievable statement from the BWXT Y-12 representative indicated that one of the problems with the pension plan is that the retirees are living too long – we apologize for that.

From the outside, one perception may be that these employees held good jobs — among the best in the region — and fared well. The reality, even more so in the last couple of decades, is that most contractor employees in professional fields like engineering would actually earn more in the private sector. The attraction was, and is, stability, decent benefits (though no longer that much better than the private sector, as was once the case), and for some, a sense of purpose.

Federal employees receive regular cost-of-living increases, as do retired congressmen and even social security recipients. Clearly, the Department is unable or unwilling to acknowledge their debt to the retirees and do the right thing, so the solution will be political.

Why should people who didn’t retire from, don’t work for, or have never worked for a DOE contractor care if the pensioners are treated fairly? Because these folks live in your community, and their purchasing and taxpaying power is directly related to the shrinking value of the pension they earned on salaries of ten, twenty, or more years ago. It impacts the viability of your local government, and places a heavier burden upon you.

Munger’s summation that the issue may likely be settled politically is correct, and you have an interest in supporting reasonable change.

World

The WSJ has an interesting page one article on the experience of doing business in Dubai; although two notable westerners were recruited to help set up the Dubai International Financial Center.

In the latest phase of its development, Dubai sought to lure global financial firms to its soil. And if they wanted international legal and regulatory standards, Dubai was determined it would provide them — at least inside one section of downtown. After some wrangling with the U.A.E.’s central authorities, Dubai won permission to exempt its financial center from nearly all of the federation’s commercial laws.

The U.A.E.’s central bank, under international pressure to improve its oversight, set some limits. It retained jurisdiction over investigations of possible terrorism financing and money laundering. But it let Dubai set up an entirely separate, Western-based commercial system for its financial district that would do business in dollars, and in English.

This included independent regulators and judges imported from the West. Dubai scored its first coup in 2002 when it lured Ian Hay Davison, a former chief executive of Lloyds of London, and Phillip Thorpe, a former senior British financial regulator, to set up and oversee the regulatory side of the proposed financial center.

Of course, an incident now deemed a “cultural misunderstanding” led to the firing of the two executives… which leads me to question their commitment to western-style regulations and oversight, including that of terrorists.

It’s also worth reading a view on the Dubai ports deal from an entirely different perspective: an editorial from the Dubai-based Gulf News. Unfortunately, for any American politician, either position is assailable.

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Domestically, Michelle Malkin has the entire transcript (and link to audio recorded by a student) of the unhinged teacher caught on tape in Denver.

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