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ISPs spent $235 million on lobbying and donations, “more than $320,000 a day”


A politician counting money in front of the US Capitol Building.

The biggest Internet service providers and their trade groups spent $234.7 million on lobbying and political donations during the most recent two-year congressional cycle, according to a report released yesterday. The ISPs and their trade groups lobbied against strict net neutrality rules and on various other telecom and broadband regulatory legislation, said the report written by advocacy group Common Cause.

Of the $234.7 million spent in 2019 and 2020, political contributions and expenditures accounted for $45.6 million. The rest of it went to lobbying expenditures.

Comcast led the way with $43 million in lobbying and political contributions and expenditures combined during the 2019-2020 cycle, the report said. The highest-spending ISPs after Comcast were AT&T with $36.4 million, Verizon with $24.8 million, Charter with $24.4 million, and T-Mobile with $21.5 million.

“The dollar amounts are shocking,” the report said. “In total, these corporations spent more than $234 million on lobbying and federal elections during the 116th Congress—an average of more than $320,000 a day, seven days a week!”

Cable and wireless lobbies spent big

The cable and wireless industry’s top lobbying organizations were third and fourth in spending overall as cable group NCTA spent $31.5 million and wireless group CTIA spent $25.3 million. USTelecom, which represents telcos including AT&T and Verizon, spent $4.8 million.

The rest of the $234.7 million came from CenturyLink with $7.2 million, SpaceX/Starlink with $5.9 million, Sprint with $5.1 million prior to its merger with T-Mobile, ViaSat with $1.9 million, the Wireless Infrastructure Association with $1.6 million, Frontier with $784,000, and HughesNet with $496,000.

The Common Cause report cites campaign-finance data from OpenSecrets.org and includes this table:

Common Cause

Common Cause got help writing the report from the Communications Workers of America union that represents employees of AT&T, Verizon, and other telcos.

Common Cause itself spent $210,000 on lobbying in the two-year cycle and made $35,149 in political contributions, according to OpenSecrets. The Communications Workers of America made $10 million in contributions and spent $2.2 million on lobbying.

Net neutrality lobbying

Net neutrality was one of the top regulatory issues for broadband lobbyists as they fought the Democrats’ “Save the Internet Act.” In its original version, the bill would have reversed the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules and reinstated the Title II common-carrier regulatory system implemented during the Obama era. The Democratic-majority House of Representatives passed the bill, but then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared it “dead on arrival” in the Senate.

“When the House voted to pass the Save the Internet Act, ISPs condemned lawmakers for advancing ‘a highly controversial, partisan proposal that puts the Internet under heavy-handed government control,'” the Common Cause report said. “Given this historic opposition to net neutrality and Title II authority, it is no surprise why the Save the Internet Act did not even receive a vote in the Senate, despite bipartisan passage in the House and polling that showed 77 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Democrats support net neutrality principles.”

Eight of the 15 ISPs and lobby groups analyzed by Common Cause revealed in required disclosures that they lobbied on this bill, the report said. Those include AT&T, Comcast, NCTA, and USTelecom. But while “federal law requires lobbying disclosure reports to include a list of specific bill numbers ‘to the maximum extent practicable,'” some of the ISPs did not report lobbying on specific bills.

Common Cause explained:

Frontier Communications, for example, failed to report its lobbying on specific bills but did report paying lobbyists $537,888 during the 116th Congress to lobby on topics that included “rural broadband deployment and adoption” and “broadband mapping issues.” Similarly, HughesNet didn’t report lobbying on any specific legislation but paid lobbyists $370,000 to lobby on “broadband infrastructure” and “issues related to satellite broadband legislation.” SpaceX reported lobbying on “satellite broadband policy and matters related to satellite spectrum” in every reporting period but didn’t disclose lobbying on any specific broadband bills…

Other ISPs reported lobbying on some specific broadband legislation but also used broad categories to describe some of their lobbying. Comcast, for example, did not report lobbying on the Broadband DATA Act, a broadband mapping bill, but reported lobbying on “rural broadband deployment and mapping.” Similarly, Comcast didn’t report lobbying on the RESILIENT Networks Act but did report lobbying on “network resiliency.”

ISPs’ fight against net neutrality also involved funding a campaign in 2017 that generated “8.5 million fake comments” to the Federal Communications Commission in order to “manufacture support for repeal,” according to a recent report issued by New York State Attorney General Letitia James.

Fiber-deployment bill failed amid lobbying

ISPs also focused heavily on the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which would have spent $80 billion to deploy future-proof broadband infrastructure nationwide, directed the FCC to collect and publicize data on broadband prices, and eliminated state laws that prevent the growth of municipal broadband, among other things. The bill prioritized fiber by requiring federally funded ISPs to provide low latency and speeds of at least 100Mbps for both downloads and uploads and by defining “unserved” areas as those lacking access to 25Mbps speeds on both the download and upload side.

Six of the 15 ISPs and trade groups reported lobbying on the bill, including AT&T, Charter, NCTA, T-Mobile, USTelecom, and Verizon, Common Cause wrote, adding:

The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act seeks to address the digital divide, and ISPs want to define both the divide and its solutions to their benefit. Industry lobbyists have persistently disseminated talking points at the federal and state levels advocating for lower speed requirements and “technology neutrality,” both of which aim to limit the preference given to fiber-optic broadband in publicly funded deployment, despite the clear superiority of that technology. ISPs have also been incredibly effective over the years, lobbying at the state level to prohibit municipal broadband and cooperatives from serving communities that have been abandoned by existing providers. Further, the industry has resisted calls for price transparency… and in part owing to the successful efforts of ISP lobbyists, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act did not even receive a vote in the House or Senate during the 116th Congress.

Other bills that failed amid broadband-industry lobbying included the RESILIENT Networks Act, which would change the Communications Act “to require coordination from providers of communications services during times of emergency” and require the FCC to “improve how networks share outage information with first responders,” Common Cause wrote. Another was the CONNECT at Home Act that would have prohibited ISPs “from terminating service to a customer during the COVID-19 pandemic and up to 180 days after the pandemic is declared to be over.”

ISPs have “profoundly shaped” US policy

Congress approved the Broadband DATA Act, which required the FCC to create more accurate broadband-availability maps. AT&T and other ISPs fought against stricter mapping requirements for years but dropped some of their objections when it became clear that Congress was going to require more accurate maps anyway.

Common Cause wrote:

Despite the industry’s support for more accurate broadband maps, large ISPs played a significant role in influencing this legislation to focus strictly on collecting more granular deployment data while ignoring other metrics critical to assessing broadband availability and painting an accurate picture of the digital divide… despite advocacy from public interest groups, the Broadband DATA Act lacks any requirements for ISPs to report on key metrics, including actual speeds, latency, and pricing data. Indeed, large ISPs have opposed mapping efforts that seek to include nondeployment-related data. For example, the industry openly criticized the Biden administration’s recently released interactive broadband map, which includes publicly available data on speeds, pricing, and other metrics. While the Broadband DATA Act will get us much closer to granular deployment data, ISP lobbying was successful in limiting Congress’ ability to require more data collection across other broadband-related metrics.

The Common Cause report urged Congress to require more specific lobbying disclosures and to pass broadband bills such as the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act. Common Cause also lobbied for net neutrality rules and stricter regulation in general, saying that the Trump-era deregulatory approach contributed to rising broadband prices, “a lack of transparent billing practices, and reports of mobile carriers selling their customers’ real-time location data.”

“Political spending by AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and other major ISPs has profoundly shaped the contours of the digital divide,” Common Cause wrote. “But the fight is not over. There are a number of steps our elected officials can take to give power back to the people and begin to close the digital divide.”

Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.



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