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Nation's Largest ISPs Crafting Fake National Broadband Policy
In order to make sure that no real, substantive ones take shape....
by Karl Bode 06:59PM Thursday Jul 17 2008
It's generally agreed upon that this nation has no broadband policy whatsoever. We can probably all also agree that actually changing this might be a good idea for a supposed global technology leader. Of course, the growing chorus on this front has the nation's largest ISPs concerned that a real broadband plan could hit them in the pocketbook. Their solution? Create something that vaguely looks like a national broadband strategy, but exists primarily to protect the interests of the incumbent cable and phone companies.

...in order to pre-empt any real national broadband policy from taking shape, the nation's largest broadband companies are collectively crafting their own anti-consumer "national broadband policy," and pushing it through Congress as a cure-all while consumers and the media nap.
Last week AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and a handful of other tiny companies sent a letter to Congress asking them to embrace a "national broadband policy." In it, the traditionally regulation-petrified ISPs suddenly embrace two new laws, both of which center around the the belief that a group named Connected Nation is a broadband panacea. The letter cites a dubious study by this same group issued earlier this year, claiming their particular plan would give a $134 billion cash infusion to the economy.
quote:
We cannot afford to let another year go by without adopting policies that will stimulate the economy in such ways, while expanding use of the networks that are already deployed and providing broadband in previously under served areas. That is why we urge you to work in a bipartisan, bicameral way to enact federal legislation this year.
Oh, delicious bicameralism! But wait: aren't you guys the same companies that have fought accurate broadband penetration mapping tooth and nail in court, sued the living hell out of cities and towns for wiring themselves with broadband, and have repeatedly shown you have absolutely no interest in deploying broadband into rural America? Any reasonable skeptic has to smell something funny in the water. That something funny is this: in order to pre-empt any real national broadband policy from taking shape, the nation's largest broadband companies are collectively crafting their own anti-consumer "national broadband policy," and pushing it through Congress as a cure-all while consumers and the media nap.

Their motivation is obvious. Were a real, substantive national broadband plan crafted, it would include input from consumer advocates, respected Internet visionaries and involve objective (not farmed think tank) science. It would involve high standards, high-quality mapping and significant subsidized deployment, but it would also hold these companies accountable for how subsidies are spent. If done right (and granted that's wishful thinking with today's politicians from both parties), it would be everything the USF isn't. That's a nightmare for any investor-driven incumbent operator, who like their taxpayer handouts with no accountability.

So instead, they've cooked up a dog and pony show starring (but not limited to) a group called Connected Nation, which has been praised on the national stage, but criticized in our forums over the last few years for being little more than a lobbying, policy and sales vehicle for the nation's largest carriers. In a report last January, Art Brodsky of consumer advocacy outfit Public Knowledge had this to say about Connected Nation:
quote:
(The judgment of independent ISPs who've worked with them) is that Connect Kentucky is nothing more than a sales force and front group for AT&T paid for by the telecommunications industry and by state and federal governments that has achieved far more in publicity than it has in actual accomplishment. Connect helps to promote AT&T services, while lobbying at the state capitol for the deregulation legislation the telephone company wants.
So what is Connected Nation's ingenious national broadband plan? The group takes state and federal funds to map broadband penetration, and returns with a rosy progress report suggesting things are generally ok, with only a few quick fixes necessary. Of course nobody can independently confirm whether they're telling the truth because the FCC's own broadband statistics are (some would argue quite intentionally) complete garbage. Connected Nation then sends out teams with glossy brochures (pdf) into specifically targeted under-served communities, promoting the joys of broadband (and incumbent services) while acting as "trusted advisers" to frequently oblivious local leaders.

Those advisers act to funnel local business primarily to incumbents, promote incumbent-supported policies, and wow lawmakers with increasingly rosy (and inaccurate) statistics showing what a great job they're doing fixing the nation's broadband problems. In the end, your taxpayer dollars would go toward a "national broadband plan" that's little more than a very sophisticated lobbying and sales front for AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. It actually could be worse than having no national policy at all, as the plan could act to mask the nation's broadband shortcomings.

In this multi-billion dollar industry, where every policy decision has a massive impact on tremendous capex budgets, the phone and cable companies have shown they have no problem doing whatever it takes to get what they want in Washington -- including the creation of completely artificial consumer advocacy organizations. The idea that these companies would create an equally disingenuous organization tasked with crafting a wimpy, unaccountable, subsidy-laden national broadband policy is not much of an imaginative stretch.

The nation's incumbent operators "want to slow down the effort to get broadband to the remaining 6-9 million U.S. homes that can't be served, putting 6-18 months of red tape in front of getting anything done.
-Dave Burstein
The nation's incumbent operators "want to slow down the effort to get broadband to the remaining 6-9 million U.S. homes that can't be served, putting 6-18 months of red tape in front of getting anything done," says respected (at least until he starts asking questions) industry analyst Dave Burstein. Burstein notes that of the 24 signers to last week's letter, only two are legitimate non-profit groups who "presumably didn't understand the agenda they were signing on to."

But as I've documented, not only are these companies willing to create completely artificial consumer groups to get what they want, they often pay existing minority or disability groups to parrot phone or cable company positions. These positions very frequently run completely opposite to constituent best interests, but are often necessary if these groups want money for that shiny new events center. Support from both fake and co-opted advocacy groups create the illusion of broad support for anti-consumer policies, which is how Uncle Sam often justifies passing idiotic telecom laws.

"The giveaway was seeing APT on the list, Sam Simon's front," says Burstein. Sam Simon runs a PR firm named Issue Dynamics, hired by the baby bells to engage in convincing lawmakers and the public that bad ideas really are good for them. Burstein's conclusion? "Some very well paid lobbyists are trying to take over (the idea of a national broadband plan) and raid the U.S. Treasury."

Whether they succeed will depend on whether the media (oh look, an iPhone!), consumers and lawmakers let them.


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