A new study argues crappy U.S. broadband is an active policy choice—and a direct result of pathetically weak U.S. lobbying and corporate finance laws.
Over the last few years big internet service providers have killed net neutrality, eliminated most FCC oversight of broadband providers, derailed efforts to pass meaningful privacy rules, and thwarted a wide variety of proposals designed to deliver faster, cheaper fiber broadband competition.
A new joint study by Common Cause and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union found that the telecom industry spent $234 million on lobbying during the 116th Congress alone, or nearly $320,000 a day. Comcast was the biggest spender at more than $43 million, with AT&T not far behind at $36 million.
“The powerful ISP lobby will seemingly spend whatever it takes to keep politicians beholden to them and maintain a status quo that leaves too many Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide,” the groups said.
The result of this influence, the study found, is U.S. broadband that’s slower, more expensive, and generally worse than the global average. And political leaders that are generally too feckless and compromised to do much of anything about it.
“The largest ISPs have used their outsized influence in Congress to block any legislation that would undermine their stranglehold over the broadband marketplace,” the study noted.
The groups found that one of the industry’s top targets during the last Congress was the Save the Internet Act, which would have restored net neutrality and the FCC consumer protection authority stripped away during the Trump administration (amidst a flood of empty promises).
Telecom lobbyists also fought against the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which includes money to help fund local community broadband. And they successfully derailed the RESILIENT Networks Act, proposed as an attempt to shore up Puerto Rico network resiliency after prolonged telecom outages from hurricanes Irma and Maria.
An estimated 83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly, usually a regional cable giant like Comcast or Charter. Millions more live under a duopoly consisting of either an apathetic phone company or their local cable provider. The end result is obvious: spotty access, slow speeds, high prices, and generally terrible customer service.
Often these failures are treated as a matter of cost (we’re not spending enough) or technology (we’re not inventing or investing in the right solutions). But the CWA and Common Cause study argues that substandard U.S. broadband is an active policy choice made by heavily-lobbied lawmakers. In other words: corruption.
“For years, Congressional efforts to pass legislation needed to address the nation’s long-standing disparities in connectivity have been stopped dead in their tracks in part because of aggressive industry lobbying and the oversized political influence of the largest ISPs,” Common Cause Media and Democracy Program Director Yosef Getachew said of the study.
Getachew noted that efforts to improve broadband mapping, fund the deployment of competitive fiber, or even improve the standard definition of broadband have all repeatedly been scuttled by industry lobbying. At the same time, telecom lobbyists have worked tirelessly to undermine federal and state regulatory oversight of the heavy monopolized telecom industry.
For example the Trump-era net neutrality repeal didn’t just kill net neutrality rules designed to protect consumers, it eliminated much of the agency’s consumer protection authority. To accomplish this the industry didn’t just lobby Congress, it was caught hiring marketing firms to flood the FCC with bogus support from both dead and fake Americans.
The report found that a primary reason this dynamic doesn’t change is an obvious one: U.S. lobbying laws are too pathetic to rein in corporate influence.
Current federal lobbying laws define a “lobbyist” as an individual who—within a three-month period—makes two or more lobbying contacts or spends more than 20 percent of their time lobbying. But it’s relatively trivial for most lobbying firms to tap dance around these restrictions by using multiple lobbyists or by simply calling what they do—something else.
However weak our federal lobbying laws are, the report notes that U.S. campaign finance laws are even weaker. Thanks in large part to the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which eliminated already flimsy restrictions on corporate political expenditures, flooding DC with an unlimited parade of “dark money” contributions.
“Under Citizens United and its progeny, ISPs, trade associations, and other corporations can make unlimited expenditures in federal elections and unlimited contributions to super PACs and dark money groups to be spent on supporting or opposing federal candidates,” the report said.
Much of this spending isn’t really tracked, meaning that however much your local cable monopoly spends on lobbying, it’s likely spending millions more on various (and often extremely dodgy) campaigns to influence policy, media coverage, and the public discourse.
The report is quick to note that while this kind of lopsided telecom giant influence is bad for everybody, it’s particularly harmful for low-income and marginalized communities, which not only can’t afford the resulting high prices, but are routinely left out of the loop when it comes to next-generation broadband upgrades.
“Our political system is rigged in favor of hedge funds and wealthy shareholders who demand short-term profits over the lasting health of our economy,” CWA Senior Director for Government Affairs Shane Larson told Motherboard. “Telecom companies are limiting deployment of fiber optic broadband to wealthier neighborhoods and monopoly cable is overcharging for subpar service.”
To fix the U.S. broadband problem, the report recommends first updating the Lobbying Disclosure Act to force companies to clearly disclose what legislation they’re lobbying on and which public officials they’ve been in contact with. The report also recommends passing the For the People Act to help usher forth additional lobbying and voting reforms.
Only then can Congress actually pass broadband reform legislation the public generally supports, whether it’s tough net neutrality rules, broadband-related consumer privacy protections, or dismantling unjust state restrictions on community broadband.
Correction: The Common Cause and the Communications Workers of America study found that the telecom industry spent $320,000 a day on lobbying efforts, not $230,000. Motherboard regrets the error.