Community Groups Were Duped Into Joining the Telecom Industry's Anti-Net-Neutrality Coalition

By Lee Fang

Activists protest Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to gut net neutrality in Washington last month. Photo via Flickr user Stephen Melkhisethian

What do an environmental group in Ohio, a small military radio program, and a network of rural hospitals in Texas all have in common? They appear on a list of coalition members for a group pressuring the government to abandon net neutrality—rules to prevent broadband providers from creating internet fast and slow lanes—but claim they did not intend to sign up for any such advocacy.

Last week VICE reported on a number of groups, funded by the cable and cell-phone industry, purporting to represent consumer advocates while lobbying the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to allow the creation of a two-tiered internet. Broadband for America, one of the groups we profiled seeking to prevent the FCC from reclassifying broadband as a public utility, claims to be a broad "coalition of 300 internet consumer advocates, content providers, and engineers."

Not only is Broadband for America largely funded by a single contribution from the National Cable and Telecom Association (NCTA)—the trade group that represents Comcast, Cox, Time Warner Cable, and others—but a closer look at their member list reveals an almost random assortment of companies and community groups, many of which say they never intended to sign up for an anti-net neutrality coalition.

Bob Calvert, the host of TalkingWithHeroes.com, a radio program listed as a Broadband for American member, told us that he is not familiar with the net-neutrality debate. "My program is a nonpolitical program supporting our men and women who serve and who have served our country and their families," said Calvert, in response to an inquiry from VICE.

Another Broadband for America member, the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals, said it had joined only to support broadband access in rural and underserved areas, not on issues relating to net neutrality or the classification of broadband as a utility. "We will reexamine this endorsement and make a determination whether to continue supporting the coalition should we find that the current policies they are proposing would undermine the original goal of greater access for all Americans," said Dave Pearson, president of the group, which represents rural hospitals in Texas as the name suggests.

Don Hollister, the executive director of the Ohio League of Conservation Voters, said he was unaware of his organization being listed as a Broadband for America member. After our inquiry, Hollister wrote to us to share a message he sent to Broadband for America: "The Ohio League of Conservation Voters does not endorse your position on broadband. This is not a policy area that we take positions on. Why are we listed as a Broadband for America member? I am unaware of Ohio LCV taking any position on broadband issues and I have been Executive Director since 2011. The Ohio LCV is not a member of Broadband for America. Remove us from your listing of members."

Other groups we contacted were simply confused. "I'm not aware of them and I pay all the bills. I've never heard of Broadband for America," replied Keith Jackson, an accountant with the Spread Eagle Tavern & Inn, a cozy bed-and-breakfast in Ohio that is listed as a Broadband for America member.

The participation of other Broadband for America members includes more improbable stalwarts of the broadband industry agenda like a tile and roofing company, a Virginia college scholarship program, a golf club in Salem, Oregon, and the Eastern Shore Tourism Commission.

It's difficult to see Broadband for America as much more than an appendage of the Internet Service Provider (ISP) lobby seeking to manufacturer community support. A previous story on Broadband for America's coalition by journalist Eli Clifton noted that several seemingly random members had received generous funding from cable and telecom business groups. Broadband for America's president, according to its annual tax documents, is Bryan Tramont, a DC-based attorney and former chief of staff to former FCC Commissioner and current cable industry lobbyist Michael Powell. In 2012, Tramont wrote a legal brief in support of Verizon's successful lawsuit to block the FCC's previous attempt at establishing net neutrality.

The documents also list Beneva Shulte as part of the Broadband for America leadership. Shulte is a senior counselor to the DCI Group, a lobbying firm that represents Verizon and has long served as a political consulting firm to the US Telecom Association, a cable-industry trade group. Former Senator John Sununu, one of two honorary co-chairs of Broadband for America, is a well-paid board member at Time Warner Cable.

Broadband for America's advocacy against net neutrality is nothing new. When the FCC took up the regulations during President Obama's first term, Broadband for America—again touting its 300-member coalition—aired television advertisements claiming that the rules would "cripple development of the internet."

"Broadband for America is well practiced in the art of fooling people," says Tim Karr, senior director of strategy for Free Press. "Like other astroturf groups that have entered the debate over the future of the internet, BFA has erected a scrim of public-interest rhetoric to hide its true intentions: pushing the policy objectives of the nation's largest phone and cable companies. Sadly, the debate over issues like net neutrality and municipal Wi-Fi has been polluted by many such operations."

Broadband for America has taken a bipartisan approach to winning influence, retaining Democrats like former Congressman Harold Ford, and in previous years, SKD Knickerbocker, the political consulting firm led by President Obama's former White House communications director Anita Dunn. The group has also paid at least $1,360,545 in consulting fees to former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie. Gillespie left his consulting firm a few months ago to become the GOP nominee for US Senate in Virginia this November.

As for Broadband for America's coalition, we're still waiting to hear back from other members, like Buster's Auto Art and Judah International Christian Center, on why they are listed as supporters of the telecom industry's agenda.

Update: A representative from Broadband for America sent VICE the following statement on June 11:

Broadband for America has always been committed to an open internet. The organization includes a wide range of members who have joined since the launch in 2009 because they believe in expanding broadband access and adoption of high-speed internet technology. Now a debate is heating up in Washington regarding reclassifying broadband as a public utility, a regulatory move known as "Title II reclassification," that would undermine this goal by chilling the investment that has resulted in the robust network we enjoy today.

Broadband for America was formed around the mission of expanding Broadband access and adoption, not around fighting net neutrality.

We remain committed to our core mission of supporting high-speed broadband adoption and deployment around the country.

 

Lee Fang, a San Francisco–based journalist, is an Investigative Fellow at The Nation Institute and co-founder of Republic Report.

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