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Charter’s “Spectrum Internet Assist” is Cable-Style “Charity” With Tricks and Traps

Warren (center) pictured with representatives of Charter Communications and PowerMyLearning (Photo courtesy of: PowerMyLearning)

The incumbent mayor of Rochester, N.Y., currently up for re-election, has decided to take indirect credit for a low-cost internet program loaded with tricks and traps from a cable company that is worsening the affordable internet problem in the United States.

Mayor Lovely Warren made the head-slapping mistake of teaming up with Charter Communications, already on track to being even more universally despised by its customers than its immediate predecessor Time Warner Cable. Casting political instincts to the wind, Warren decided to team up with an unpopular cable company that is gouging its regular customers while offering a token “low-cost” internet program designed to protect Charter’s internet profits more than offering low-income customers a break.

WHAM-TV:

New low-cost, high-speed broadband Internet service is being launched in Rochester, Mayor Lovely Warren announced Thursday.

PowerMyLearning and Charter Communications announced Spectrum Internet Assist (SIA) would offer the service to eligible low-income household customers in Rochester.

Broadband speeds of 30/4 Mbps are being offered for $14.99 per month by SIA, according to Mayor Warren.

“Lowering the cost barrier to Internet access for families is essential if we are to close the digital divide and help them rise out of poverty,” said Mayor Warren. “Internet access is increasingly essential for students to do homework, for jobs seekers to research and apply for jobs, pay bills and remain connected with society.”

We agree with the mayor that lowering the cost barrier is critical to making essential internet service available to every resident. Unfortunately, Charter Communications is making the problem worse, not better. Charter’s idea of charity doesn’t seem so magnanimous when you read the fine print.

Charter’s solution for affordable internet: Charge most customers more while a select few jump through hoops for a discount.

First, Spectrum Internet Assist is highly discriminatory and only available to families with school age children that qualify for the National School Lunch Program. Don’t have kids? Tough luck. When they leave school, no more affordable internet for you!

Second, if you are a senior citizen on a fixed income, you probably already have 20+ years under your belt dealing with relentless rate increases from the local cable company. Unless you are 65 or over and receive SSI benefits, you’ll keep on paying those rate increases because the only thing Charter has on offer for you is a bigger bill.

Third, and the most egregious insult of all to the most vulnerable members of our society is Charter’s cynical fear its fat internet profits will be cannibalized if they simply lowered the bills of customers that would otherwise qualify for this program. Spectrum Internet Assist is for new customers only (and if you are still on a Time Warner Cable plan, you aren’t a new customer).

Charter refuses to relent on its policy requiring current customers to disconnect internet service for a month before they can qualify for Charter’s “charity.” The company is worried it will lose money from customers downgrading to Spectrum Internet Assist who will pay a lot less for internet access. To prevent that, Charter makes the process of enrolling as difficult and inconvenient as possible. Imagine if RG&E or National Grid demanded poor residents go without heat for 30 days before qualifying for heating assistance or if your elderly grandparents had to disconnect telephone service for a month before qualifying for Lifeline.

While obsessing about whether its poorest customers are taking ‘unfair’ advantage of a money-saving deal, Charter has no problem splurging on fat bonuses and compensation packages for its top executives. In fact, the highest paid CEO in the United States in 2016 was Thomas Rutledge, top dog at Charter Communications, rewarded with a splendid $98.5 million compensation package for finding new ways to charge consumers even more for cable service. Charter can certainly afford to lighten up on its customers. Instead, it seeks to live up to the cable industry’s usual reputation of a modern-day reboot of Oliver Twist, this time starring Rutledge as Fagin. Since Warren wholeheartedly endorses Charter’s paltry efforts for the poor, perhaps residents can call her up and ask why they should be forced off the internet for a month just to qualify for Charter’s “charity.” Or maybe not, considering the fact she had nothing to do with Spectrum Internet Assist beyond having her picture taken at a press event.

As is too often the case, uninformed politicians are quick to take credit for programs they don’t understand and are nowhere to be found when the real problem-solving and hard work needs to be done. How can we say that? Because we were a registered and very involved party in the New York Public Service Commission’s review of the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger deal. Mayor Warren wasn’t. We fought for pro-consumer benefits if such a deal was to be approved. Mayor Warren didn’t. We understood from long experience the cynicism that separates the cable industry’s lofty words from its fine print. She doesn’t.

Spectrum Internet Assist does very little to resolve the problem of internet affordability. The program is a close cousin of Comcast’s much-criticized Internet Essentials program, which has similar eligibility requirements and has proven cumbersome to sign up for and leaves too many eligible families behind because of its onerous signup requirements. In 2016, Comcast itself admitted that since 2011 it has only enrolled 750,000 low-income households in its discounted internet program, although more than 2.6 million families were eligible to sign-up but never did.

Charter makes internet affordability worse.

Our research shows that Charter’s token efforts for the few are more than canceled out by the rate increases and reduced options made available to the rest of its customers.

Time Warner Cable used to offer lower-cost internet plans.

Time Warner Cable used to sell six different internet plans ranging from $14.99 to $64.99 for new customers (and practically anyone who ever complained about their cable bill) or $14.99 to $109.99 if you were in the tiny minority of customers who didn’t either bundle service or ask for a promotion. Charter Communications argues it is “better” for consumers to simplify Time Warner’s “complicated” plans and pricing with a one-size-fits-all alternative — 60Mbps for what sells today for $64.99 a month (they raised the price $5 a month back in February). But at least you won’t pay that modem rental fee (if you didn’t bother to avoid it by buying your own cable modem that would have paid for itself long ago.)

So which company makes internet affordability a bigger problem — Time Warner Cable, which sold less expensive internet service at prices of $14.99, $29.99, and $34.99, or Charter Communications which advertises only one internet plan on its website for much of western New York – 60Mbps for $64.99 ($44.99 if you are new to Charter and not a previous Time Warner Cable customer that still has cable service). Spectrum’s plan is more than four times more expensive than Time Warner Cable’s previously well-advertised $14.99 plan.

Regular TWC broadband-only pricing in 2016.

No organization worked harder than Stop the Cap! to keep Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet tier as a condition of the merger. While not fast, it is affordable and available to every customer, not just the small percentage that will eventually manage to qualify for Spectrum Internet Assist. Fortunately, New York’s Public Service Commission agreed with us and insisted that option remain available in New York State for the next several years. But Charter has subsequently made that plan almost invisible, removing all mention of it from its website, telling some customers it was not available, and leaving a distinct impression they don’t want customers to sign up.

Charter’s one-size-fits all plan got more expensive in February.

The reason is simple. Revenue cannibalization. Thomas Rutledge has repeatedly stressed to Wall Street investors he intended to end the “Turkish bazaar” of Time Warner Cable’s former cavalcade of plans and promotions. When a customer called Time Warner to complain about their bill, there was always room for negotiation and a better deal. Customers calling Charter looking for a break are hitting a brick wall with “take it or leave it” pricing, and tens of thousands of customers are “leaving it” and Charter behind. In this area, we don’t have that luxury because the alternative is usually Frontier Communications’ dreadful DSL service, which almost never meets the FCC’s definition of broadband — at least 25Mbps.

To give you an idea of just how rapacious Charter’s broadband pricing is, consider local upstart competitor Greenlight, which offers fiber to the home service to a very small number of neighborhoods predominately on the east side of the Genesee River. It charges a no-nonsense $50 a month for 100Mbps internet — $15 less than what Charter charges for 60Mbps. If you want gigabit speed, Greenlight will sell you 1,000Mbps for $100 a month, which is $5 less than Charter’s unadvertised 100Mbps offer ($104.95/mo with a mandatory $199 setup fee). Ten times the speed for less. No wonder their Facebook page is filled with people begging them to expand.

Rochester, like other cities in the upstate region, continues to fall behind with inadequate and costly internet service, insufficient competition, and no sign of gigabit speeds arriving anytime soon, unless you are lucky enough to live in a Greenlight service area. Those kinds of 21st century internet speeds are years away if we continue to depend on the local cable and phone company.

Phillip Dampier: We can afford to do without Charter’s “charity.”

In the local mayor’s race, one candidate seems to understand this problem and has a credible solution that fixes it. Rachel Barnhart has a long history of advocating for a citywide public fiber broadband network that would wire every home in the city for an estimated $70 million. The costs would be shared by city residents, the Rochester City School District, and at least one private vendor that would likely be responsible for administering day-to-day operations.

“About forty percent of homes in the city – 35,000 households —  don’t have high-speed internet via cable or DSL,” Barnhart said. “Some of those households can only access the internet via smartphones. The Rochester City School District has estimated half of its students don’t have broadband at home.”

City taxpayers have already paid for a underutilized institutional dark fiber network. Barnhart proposes putting that network to work for the community, selling competitively priced gigabit service for residential and business customers that would effectively subsidize free, slower-speed service for the less-fortunate. Is it expensive? Perhaps. But is it out of line when one considers in one local suburb this year, taxpayers will spend $1 million dollars on a single traffic light and minor road widening project to better manage traffic. Considering how many communities need digital highway traffic improvements, this kind of investment is hardly audacious and isn’t just about giving people fast internet. Managing the local digital economy with the right infrastructure is essential in a community that has seen the loss of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs and has been economically challenged for years. The alternative is what we have now — watching a mayor impotently smile at a manufactured press event declaring victory while the near-cable monopoly local residents have for broadband service throws *-laden scraps at the public and calls it a day.

Rochester, and other communities that are enduring a cable company that is rapidly turning out to be worse than Time Warner Cable, cannot afford Charter’s “generosity.”

Politicians would do well to remember the sage advice we’ve given consumers since 2008. When a cable company claims they have a better deal for you, watch your wallet. For Mayor Warren, she will have to learn the same lesson we taught city councilman Adam McFadden and Assemblyman Joe Morelle. With friends like Charter/Spectrum or Comcast, you don’t need any enemies.

Here is Who Paid the Sock Puppets Trotting Out Anti-Net Neutrality Opinion Pieces

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly “independent” people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

A mass of guest editorials and opinion pieces appearing in the D.C. press praising FCC chairman Ajit Pai and his intention to get rid of Net Neutrality fail to disclose the millions of dollars the authors’ host organizations have received from the telecommunications industry.

Pai smugly announced in an April 26 speech that he wants to roll back Net Neutrality rules brought into effect under President Obama in 2015. Those rules guarantee that ISPs cannot discriminate against any online application or service or interfere with traffic for competitive reasons. Pai and other opponents of an open internet have called Net Neutrality ‘a solution in search of a problem.’ But since announcing an intention to mothball the rules, the telecom industry’s sock puppets have frantically penned opinion pieces that suggest the rules were a disaster that held back innovation and investment — a claim countered by the record of ISP investment since the rules took effect and statements from many Silicon Valley innovators that support the Net Neutrality rules now under threat.

Media Matters did extensive research on the individuals and groups behind the letters, and it will come to no surprise to Stop the Cap! readers that just about every piece originated from or on behalf of a group that received financial support from the same cable and phone companies that want Net Neutrality dead and buried:

(Searches were conducted via The Center for Public Integrity’s Nonprofit Network tool of available IRS filings.)

  • Thomas M. Lenard, a senior fellow and president emeritus at the Technology Policy Institute, wrote an April 28 opinion piece for The Hill which praised Pai and defended ISPs against concerns over content blocking. Lenard’s group states that its supporters include AT&T, Charter, Comcast, and NCTA. The group received $1 million from NCTA from 2011-2014 and $22,500 from CTIA in 2011 and 2013.
  • Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) President Tom Giovanetti wrote an April 27 opinion piece for The Hill praising Pai for “eliminating harmful regulation” and commending his “commitment to undo the two-year-old mistake of regulating the internet under the old Title II.” IPI received $135,000 between 2010 and 2014 (the most recent years available) from MyWireless.org (now ACTwireless), a project of CTIA, and $110,000 from NCTA from 2011-2014.
  • Digital Liberty Executive Director Katie McAuliffe wrote an April 27 piece for The Daily Caller praising Pai’s Net Neutrality remarks. Digital Liberty is a project of Americans for Tax Reform, which received $200,000 from NCTA from 2011-2014 and $115,000 from MyWireless.org from 2010-2014.
  • Doug Brake, a senior telecommunications policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), wrote an April 27 opinion piece for The Hill praising Pai for “moving in the right direction” with his Net Neutrality plans. The ITIF has received $220,000 from NCTA from 2010 to 2014 and $235,000 from CTIA from 2010 to 2014.
  • Brandon Arnold, the executive vice president at the National Taxpayers Union, wrote an April 26 Washington Examiner piece that criticized existing Net Neutrality rules as having “stymied innovation and reduced the deployment of new broadband services.” The National Taxpayers Union received $200,000 from CTIA from 2010-2014.
  • Jonathon Paul Hauenschild, director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Task Force on Communications & Technology, wrote an April 28 piece for The Hill attacking the Obama administration’s Net Neutrality rules. ALEC has close ties to the telecom industry (among many other corporate interests) and received $85,000 from CTIA from 2010-2014 and $41,000 from NCTA in 2010 and 2011.

Media Matters previously documented that media outlets have promoted the anti-Net Neutrality Free State Foundation without noting it has received heavily financial backing from the telecommunications industry.

Corporate/Koch Brother-Linked Group Asks FCC to Repeal Charter/Spectrum’s Data Cap Prohibition

A conservative group funded by corporate interests and the Koch Brothers has asked FCC chairman Ajit Pai to answer its petition and move expeditiously to cancel the prohibition of data caps/usage-based pricing as a condition for FCC approval of Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

A number of pro-consumer deal conditions were included as part of the merger transaction’s approval, and won the support of a majority of FCC commissioners under the leadership of former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, appointed by President Barack Obama.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) is hopeful that with Wheeler out of office and a new Republican majority at the FCC under the Trump Administration means the FCC will end requirements that Charter offer unlimited data plans, discounted internet access for low-income consumers, and start allowing Charter to charge fees to Netflix and other content providers to connect to its broadband customers. CEI has every reason to be hopeful, pointing out Chairman Pai is a fan of data caps on residential broadband service, opposes Net Neutrality, and recently effectively killed a Lifeline program that would have extended inexpensive internet access to the poor.

CEI:

As then-Commissioner Pai wrote in 2016, this condition is neither “fair” nor “progressive.” Instead, he called this “the paradigmatic case of the 99% subsidizing the 1%,” as it encourages Charter to raise prices on all consumers in response to costs stemming from the activities of a “bandwidth-hungry few.” Other problematic conditions include the ban on Charter charging “edge providers” a price for interconnection and the requirement that the company operate a “low-income broadband program” for customers who meet certain criteria.

The group is optimistic Pai will oversee the unwinding of Charter’s deal conditions largely pushed by former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, after Pai recently led the charge to revoke another condition required of Charter in return for merger approval – a commitment to expand its cable network to pass at least one million new homes that already receive broadband service from another provider.

Pai also opposed the low-income internet program, calling it “rate regulation.” The CEI claimed the requirement will “undermine Charter’s ability to price its services in an economically rational manner.”

“Hopefully, the FCC’s new leadership will seize this opportunity to take a stand against harmful merger conditions that have nothing to do with the transaction at hand—by granting CEI’s petition,” the group wrote on its blog.

AT&T Schmoozing Lawmakers With Drinks, Tartare, and a Blonde for Its Latest Merger Deal

Phillip Dampier February 8, 2017 Astroturf, AT&T, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

As your AT&T wireless bill soars to new heights, the phone company is spent your money on an exclusive inside-the-beltway private soirée to help win approval of its merger deal with Time Warner, Inc.

The little people (ordinary Americans and AT&T customers) were barred at the door for AT&T’s “Stars and Stripes Reception,” celebrating the grand opening of the AT&T Forum for Technology, Entertainment, and Policy. The party was heavy on lobbyists, lawyers, executives, and lawmakers that Bloomberg News reported were bathed in cool blue light and amply supplied with drinks and avocado tartare with melon carpaccio. Added bonus: free photos with a blonde in a slinky white gown promoting “Ice,” an AT&T original show seen on DirecTV.

AT&T doesn’t throw parties just to have fun. Its army of 100 lobbyists and a budget of at least $16.4 million to match leaves very little to chance. Only one company – Boeing – spends more time and money influencing lawmakers. But even a household name aerospace company cannot match the success AT&T has had getting its corporate agenda through in Washington, especially when the Republicans hold the majority. The company has spent more than $213 million schmoozing elected officials since 1998 alone.

The smell of power brought some important names to AT&T’s party, among them, Meredith Attwell Baker, former Republican FCC commissioner who accepted a high-paying lobbying job at Comcast just a few months after voting to approve its own merger deal with NBCUniversal. She was photographed by Washington Life magazine with Peter Jacoby, a former longtime AT&T lobbyist now lobbying for UnitedHealth Group, Bryan Cunningham, co-founder and principal at Polaris Consulting, which has advised AT&T on all of its merger deals since 2009 (along with just about every other large cable merger in the last seven years), and Shane Tews, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute also associated with the Koch Brothers-backed Heartland Institute, and two other DC consultant groups catering to big businesses that need a guide to help navigate and influence Washington.

Having fun: On the right is Republican strategist Ivan Garcia-Hidalgo, Hispanic Communications | Run PAC

In short, AT&T’s Forum is the embodiment of the D.C. “swamp” President Donald Trump has vowed to drain. Yet it confidently opened for business just a few days before his inaugural. Bloomberg News called the event part of AT&T’s search for “friends in high places.”

The phone company remains concerned about Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail that a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, Inc. would concentrate too much power in too few hands and was “an example of the power structure I’m fighting.”

But not concerned enough to believe their $85.4 billion deal is dead. In fact, D.C. insiders predict the transaction is likely to sail to approval with the Trump Administration’s Justice Department. Few believe the likely next head of the agency that reviews corporate mergers on antitrust grounds — Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is going to be too tough on AT&T. The president has yet to appoint an assistant attorney general for antitrust, who will be responsible for most of the transaction’s review. But Trump’s team was still considering Joshua Wright, a law professor that generally believes mergers are pro-consumer and has promoted a strict laissez-faire philosophy on antitrust enforcement, which foreshadows almost no enforcement at all.

So why throw lavish receptions for the important people in Washington?

“All of this outreach, all of this cultivation, is ensuring you have allies,” Meredith McGehee, strategic adviser to the Campaign Legal Center told Bloomberg News. “You get to know people. You invite them. You do the receptions. You start to cultivate champions on the Hill, so if an antitrust action comes about you can turn to those champions and say, ‘Hey I need you to push back. I need you to write letters.’”

Most of that attention will continue to be tilted towards Republicans, which have traditionally been more favorable to AT&T’s interests. AT&T donated 62% of the $2.7 million in campaign contributions to the GOP in the last election. Most of AT&T’s lobbyists are Republicans that took a trip through D.C.’s revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street — home of the city’s top lobbying firms. Almost 60 of the 100 AT&T lobbyists used to work for Republican lawmakers or affiliated groups. Another 30 come from Democratic backgrounds — most formerly working for the Clinton Administration or Democratic lawmakers.

Since President Trump began emphasizing the need for American jobs and investment, AT&T’s lobbying team has tailored its message accordingly. On inauguration day, AT&T took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post stating: “We employ more than 250,000 people.” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson also reportedly emphasized AT&T’s investments in its network when he met privately with Mr. Trump in New York.

Virginia Being Scammed With Industry-Ghostwritten Broadband Ban Bill

Del. Kathy Byron (R-Big Telecom)

What is one of the most effective ways to stop competition in its tracks before it can even get off the ground? Reward a state legislator with generous campaign contributions who introduces a bill banning your would-be competitor and get back to business as usual.

Delegate Kathy Byron (R-Campbell County) has broadband, but many of the people who live and work in central and western Virginia near her district don’t. Located in south-central Virginia, the county of 55,000 endures similar broadband availability and quality problems other communities in the western half of the state experience. Located near the Blue Ridge Mountains, the county seat of Rustburg has areas served by DSL, and many other areas that are not. For telecom companies serving mountainous and rural communities in this part of the state, broadband is often not economically viable enough to meet Return On Investment formulas. In fact, the problems are so significant, the southwestern Virginia community of Claudville was selected as the nation’s first testing ground for “white space” wireless broadband, designed to serve sparsely populated rural areas.

Byron’s district in Campbell County is neither wealthy or rich in internet options. Like other communities in the region, the decline of manufacturing and the transition away from tobacco production has created enormous economic challenges. Campbell County is continuing to rely heavily on agriculture while other communities in Virginia and the Carolinas are reinventing themselves to participate in the 21st century knowledge economy. That requires 21st century broadband service, which Campbell County lacks.

Last fall, Campbell County Public Schools assistant superintendent Robert Arnold provided a frank assessment of the area’s broadband problems, telling The News & Advance schoolchildren in his district suffer from a “homework gap,” unable to complete assignments requiring the internet at home because those homes lacked access. A recent trial of “white space” broadband in the area proved unsatisfactory because, in Arnold’s view, it was unreliable.

“We’re not seeing it as a reliable solution to our problems to get internet more readily available to kids that don’t have it in the different parts of our county where there are a lot of dead spots,” Arnold said.

Even wireless providers have not stepped up. Efforts to encourage cellular companies to place antennas on the same towers used for the “white space” broadband experiment have failed as well. The newspaper reports the lack of population makes private providers “squeamish about expanding there.”

The Campbell County school system managed to switch to a fiber optic network, but the only chance students will have that option at home is if local communities choose to offer it themselves and that will never happen if Ms. Byron’s bill becomes law.

Despite the broadband challenges in her district and the failure of private providers to correct them, Byron went ahead this month and introduced the ironically-named “Virginia Broadband Deployment Act,” another bought-and-paid-for industry-ghostwritten municipal broadband ban bill that would grant near-monopoly control to the same providers that have steadfastly refused to improve rural broadband in Virginia.

Her bill, according to The Roanoke Times, is the height of hypocrisy for a Republican claiming to be pro-business development:

Byron’s bill would make it difficult for existing municipal broadband authorities to expand and new ones to get started. Curiously, for a bill sponsored by a Republican, it would create more regulation, by requiring that the state authorize any creation or expansion of a broadband authority (plus lays on other regulations, as well.) For a bill that purports to protect the free market, it actually distrusts the free market: If telecommunications companies were already providing the service the rest of the business community wanted, the business community wouldn’t be clamoring for local governments to step in.

Spent lavishly on Byron – her second largest contributor.

The newspaper shouldn’t be surprised. Politicians willing to introduce these lovingly hand-crafted turf protection bills ask themselves only one question: are the generous corporate campaign contributions that usually accompany these “model bills” still worth it if the voters find out? Even if they do, a well-funded propaganda campaign sponsored by Big Telecom companies slamming municipal broadband as a government internet takeover or a guaranteed economic failure can help give politicians enough cover to avoid being exposed for selling constituents down the river.

It will therefore come as no surprise to regular Stop the Cap! readers that Virginia’s largest telecom companies have spent lavishly on Ms. Byron over the years. Her second largest contributor (next to the Republican Party of Virginia) is Verizon, which spent considerably more on her campaign than other well-heeled companies including Anthem and the Virginia banking lobby. Another major contributor is the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association (more on that organization later). Others bringing checks include: AT&T, Sprint, CenturyLink, Comcast and the Virginia Telecommunications Association.

The pattern is all too familiar. Politicians take a sudden interest in telecommunications public policy and almost by magic produce a very detailed (and suspiciously similar) piece of legislation designed to make life impossible for public and community broadband projects, while claiming their bill will improve broadband.

In many cases, the politicians introducing these broadband ban bills are surprisingly unprepared to answer detailed questions about their own legislation, counting on local media to not scrutinize their logic too closely. But every so often, the blank stares and subject-changing that occurs when challenges are put to the alleged authors make us question if they actually read their own bill.

We have.

Byron is on ALEC’s Communications and Technology Task Force

Also of concern, Ms. Byron and her bill expose several conflicts of interest she has elected to ignore and hope nobody notices, like her membership on the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Communications and Technology Task Force, notorious for promulgating state bills restricting or banning public broadband. ALEC funding comes, in part, from some of the nation’s largest telecom companies.

We noticed.

The backlash Ms. Byron is now receiving from unhappy rural Virginia communities and local media that have read her bill has apparently surprised her, and in subsequent newspaper letters to the editor, she has taken to playing the victim card. But that has not stopped her from maligning municipal broadband projects, hoping that shaking those shiny keys will distract enough people from focusing on what is actually in her bill.

We put her keys away.

Stop the Cap! has reviewed her bill, also known as House Bill 2108, and what we found astonished us more than usual, and we’ve seen just about every kind of shilling imaginable:

§ 56-484.28. Provision of broadband expansion services.

Notwithstanding any provision of the Virginia Wireless Service Authorities Act (§ 15.2-5431.1 et seq.) or any other provision of law, a locality or any affiliate may own and operate a broadband or Internet communications system, including ownership or lease of fiber optic or other communications lines and facilities, to provide broadband expansion services only if the following conditions are met:

1. The locality or its affiliate has obtained a comprehensive broadband assessment by report or study, by the Center for Innovative Technology, or an independent consulting firm knowledgeable and experienced in analyzing broadband deployment, which report or study is made available to the public and specifically identifies any unserved areas.  The locality or its affiliate shall be responsible for all fees charged by the Center for Innovative Technology or an independent consulting firm for the preparation of such comprehensive broadband assessment report or study.

2. Based upon the comprehensive broadband assessment, the locality or its affiliate formally adopts and publishes specific broadband goals regarding capacity, geography and documented demand for Internet services in the specific unserved areas which the locality or its affiliate desires to address.

3. The locality or its affiliate has issued a request or solicitation for proposals, consistent with the specific broadband goals of the locality previously identified, requesting the capital cost which an existing for-profit local Internet service provider offering communications services with broadband speeds would incur to meet the locality’s specific broadband goals by extending or upgrading such services with broadband speeds to any specific unserved areas of the locality identified in the comprehensive broadband assessment.  Copies of such request or solicitation shall be sent to any franchised cable operator and other known Internet service providers with local facilities offering communications services in the locality at least 180 days in advance of the deadline for the response to the request or solicitation for proposals. The governing body of the locality or its affiliate shall analyze any responses it receives to determine if capital grants or subsidies by the locality to pay for such extension by an existing provider would be more cost effective than construction and operation of a new distribution system by the locality or its affiliate.

4. If no incumbent broadband provider advises the governing body of the locality within six months after the release of the request or solicitation for proposal that it is willing or able to meet the local goals, either without a capital grant or subsidy, or with the capital grant or subsidy or portion thereof proposed by the locality, then the governing body of the locality or its affiliate, after a public hearing, may vote to authorize one or more projects, consistent with the specific broadband goals of the locality previously identified,  to provide broadband expansion services to unserved areas within the locality identified by the comprehensive broadband assessment report or study described above, which report or study shall not be more than one year old at the time of the public hearing.  The chief executive officer of the locality or its affiliate shall certify that the comprehensive broadband assessment report or study identification of unserved areas is still correct based upon information presented at the hearing.

5. Any locality or affiliate project to provide broadband expansion services shall be designed and built or otherwise implemented so that at the time of authorization, the project (i) does not duplicate existing broadband facilities offering broadband speeds to customers, within 90 percent of the geographic area of the project, and (ii) does not duplicate service to customers who already are in a position to connect to an Internet service offering broadband speeds, for 90 percent of the projected residential and commercial customers who will be served by the project or otherwise are within the service area of the project.

6. Any locality or its affiliates seeking to offer or offering broadband expansion services shall, at least 120 days prior to commencement of construction of any project, file with the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council, (i) copies of its report or study from the Center for Innovative Technology, including any updates or supplements thereto, (ii) copies of the minutes of the meeting at which it voted to authorize the offering of broadband expansion services, (iii) a map or description of each project and projected area in which it plans to offer broadband expansion services, (iv) an annual certification by July 1 of each year that any expansion to or changes in its projects or system since the preceding July 1 still qualify as broadband expansion services, and (v) an annual certification that its provision of services meets or in the case of a prospective or an incomplete project shall meet, the requirements of subdivisions 1 through 6 of § 56-484.30.  Any person who believes that any part of such filings is incomplete, incorrect or false and who is in the business of providing Internet services within the locality shall have standing to bring an action in the circuit court for the locality to seek to require the locality to either comply with the substantive and procedural content of the filings required by this section, or cease to provide services, and no bond shall be required for injunctive relief against the locality.

In condensed form, this section claims to help facilitate municipal broadband service in “unserved areas,” but then hamstrings local communities to an extent that makes offering such a service next to impossible. The irony of a Republican legislator advocating detailed and burdensome regulations for a publicly owned provider while concurrently supporting “hands-off” policies for her campaign contributor-provider pals should not be lost on her constituents.

The bill could have been called the “Virginia Duopoly Protection Act,” because it only really allows public broadband development in unserved areas, and only after a community pays for a “broadband assessment” that the bill also mandates be sent to its potential competitors — private cable and telephone companies. Imagine if AT&T was required to send copies of their business plans to Comcast and Charter.

Even worse, phone and cable companies are guaranteed a “heads-up” when a community provider is thinking about providing service, exactly where that service will go, and how much it will cost the community to offer it. Companies on the wrong side of the law used to hire spies to get that information from competitors. Byron’s bill makes Virginia communities pay for the postage required to mail those plans to telecom companies serving their area.

Being given access to what even cable and phone companies would consider highly confidential information isn’t enough. Ms. Byron’s bill allows them to take their time reading it. In fact, her bill gives incumbent providers up to six months to stall, sabotage, or undercut the community effort. They are given the right to underbid the community’s proposal and ironically deliver service in places they have previously refused to serve.

“While it’s good to be specific about what a community plans to do, incumbent providers don’t have to adhere to the same level of transparency,” noted Lisa Gonzalez at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “As a result, publicly owned networks are at a disadvantage under such requirements when an incumbent knows where, what, when, and how much a municipality intends to invest to bring service to its community. When incumbents build or upgrade, they are not subject to the same level of exposure. Potential private partners who may consider leasing infrastructure or working with a community in some other capacity could also be put off by drastic transparency rules.”

Any of Virginia’s phone and cable companies could end the demand for municipal broadband tomorrow by simply providing the level of service communities need to participate in the digital economy. That requires connected education and high quality broadband for entrepreneurs and established businesses. Instead of providing that, companies write large campaign contribution checks to state politicians like Ms. Byron to slow down or sabotage any emerging competition. While stalling germinating broadband projects, providers will spend millions to demagogue them in the local media, throw every obstacle in their path, and then point to the delays and cost overruns as evidence municipal broadband is a failure.

In Tennessee, EPB had to face down a deep-pocketed cable industry lawsuit before it could begin offering gigabit internet broadband and television service. EPB eventually won the lawsuit and the service now attracts a substantial market share in Chattanooga, but critics carp it was only successful because it got a federal grant. They ignore the fact it has paid substantial dividends in job growth and enhanced the lives of local citizens, who vote for the service with their wallets.

The fact critical cable and phone companies risk charges of hypocrisy doesn’t seem to move them, even though they are not averse to accepting tax breaks and other government goodies as well. That is why providers instead use well-funded third-party astroturf groups and legislators to do their dirty work. Byron’s bill is more obvious than most, with obstructive sections mandating very short windows for public hearings, blatant protectionism, and a thicket of bureaucratic regulations designed to give ample opportunities for industry mischief with the filing of frivolous motions to run out the clock and run up costs.

§ 56-484.29. Provision of overbuild broadband services.

Any locality or its affiliate that is providing overbuild broadband services as of July 1, 2017, may continue to serve customers within the geographic service area within which it is actually providing such services as of that date; however, except as hereafter provided such locality or its affiliate shall not subsequently expand the geographic scope of its services or expand the nature of the service being offered.  Any locality or its affiliate that is not actually providing overbuild broadband services as of July 1, 2017, or if providing such services, subsequently seeks to expand the geographic territory or nature of services being offered, shall submit a proposal to the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council with a full explanation of the proposed overbuild broadband services, and if recommended by the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council, shall then require the express approval of the General Assembly through legislation approving the offering or expansion of such services by the locality or its affiliate.

Since 2008, Stop the Cap! has reviewed industry-sponsored municipal broadband ban bills, and none to date have illustrated the level of conflict of interest we see here. We call on Virginian officials to carefully investigate the ties Ms. Byron has to cable and phone companies and the ethical concerns raised from her involvement in key state bodies that can make or break rural broadband in Virginia. Byron increasingly exposes an agenda favoring incumbent phone and cable companies that just happen to contribute to her campaign — companies she seems willing to protect at any cost.

In our investigation, we uncovered several disturbing details that suggest questionable behavior from Ms. Byron, primarily from her failure to disclose materially important facts about her bill to fellow elected officials and, more importantly, the public. So far, her only defense to questions raised by the media about her bill is to play the “misunderstood victim” card:

This may be yet another example of media arrogance manifesting itself as a lack of common courtesy. But, I believe the real culprit to be something far more dangerous: the editorial’s author was not going to risk being confused by the facts.

[…] Had someone contacted me, I would have told them about my years of experience serving on Virginia’s Broadband Advisory Council, which I currently serve as chairman. The purpose of the Council is “to advise the Governor on policy and funding priorities to expedite deployment and reduce the cost of broadband access in the Commonwealth.” The Virginia Broadband Deployment Act advances that goal. That’s why legislators serving on the Council support House Bill 2108. And, we’re in good company: The Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Association of Realtors and the Northern Virginia Technology Council have all indicated their support for House Bill 2108.

Fixed or Fair? If Byron’s bill becomes law, Ray LaMura, Virginia’s top cable lobbyist, will help decide if municipal providers can expand to compete with cable companies.

In fact, we understand Ms. Byron, her telecom industry benefactors, and the special interests she mentions as supporters only too well. We invite Ms. Byron to refute some of our facts:

While broadband in major Virginia cities is no better or worse than other large cities in the region, there are vast areas in central and western Virginia where inadequate broadband service persists, and private providers have been reluctant or unwilling to change that. As a result, some municipalities are considering offering an alternative. Ms. Byron’s bill doesn’t just deter communities from entering the broadband arena in these areas, it carpet-bombs the entrance out of existence.

The section of her bill detailing requirements for community providers seeking to expand requires them to ask permission from an entity known as the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council, which Byron disturbingly chairs. If the goal of this Council is to pave the road to improved broadband, Byron’s bill is an enormous pothole. Restricting competition won’t help the Council’s goal of winning lower prices for consumers and businesses either, and last time we checked, broadband bills in Virginia are going up, not down.

Ms. Byron’s clear conflict of interest between her bill and the Council’s goals should be grounds for her immediate resignation. It is hard to justify continuing to serve on a Council promoting better broadband while introducing bills that do the opposite. Taking political campaign contributions from the same companies that are directly responsible for the state of Virginia’s broadband today also makes it impossible for the Council to have any credibility as long as she continues to chair it.

Another concern: Ms. Byron fails to disclose the Council she uses for her defense includes “citizen members” that are, in reality, some of the most important telecom industry lobbyists in the state. Ms. Byron’s bill would require communities to seek approval for broadband expansion from the same Council that counts among its members Ray LaMura, president of the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, the state’s largest cable industry lobbying group, and Duront Walton, executive director of the Virginia Telecommunications Industry Association, which represents the interests of several telephone companies in the state.

Conflict of Interest?: Another member of Virginia’s Broadband Advisory Council.

Does anyone believe the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council is likely to approve any broadband expansion plan that leads to direct competition with an established cable or phone company, particularly when members like Mr. LaMura write municipal broadband hit pieces prominently linked on his LinkedIn page? Does anyone expect a fair shake from Ms. Byron, who wrote (inaccurately) “the vast majority of municipal broadband systems across the country that have tried to compete with the private sector have failed.”

By all appearances, the fix is in.

While we’re discussing full disclosure, Ms. Byron also failed to mention the Virginia Chamber of Commerce is hardly a dispassionate arbiter of the merits of community broadband — it is a private business lobbying organization. The Virginia Realtors Association is also a political lobbying organization that openly endorsed Ms. Byron’s election campaign, contributed a substantial donation to it, and runs an active Political Action Committee. The Northern Virginia Technology Council is a trade and lobbying organization that counts among its members AT&T, Cox, Comcast, CenturyLink, and Verizon, to name a few. To quote NVTC’s own website: “NVTC members are business leaders focused on the broad business climate of our state and communities.”

We believe Ms. Byron when she said she was in good company. Missing from the cozy gathering are consumers looking for internet access, local governments feeling pressure from their constituents to do something about the problem, and any belief Ms. Byron’s bill will do anything except keep things as they are.

But wait, there is more:

§ 56-484.30. Operating requirements.

The following provisions shall apply to any locality or its affiliate which offers broadband expansion services or overbuild broadband services, after July 1, 2017:

1. A locality or its affiliate shall apply, without discrimination as to itself and any affiliate, including any charges or fees for permits, access or occupancy, the locality’s ordinances, rules, and policies, including those relating to (i) obligation to serve; (ii) access to public rights of way and municipal utility poles and conduits; (iii) permitting; (iv) performance bonding; (v) reporting; and (vi) quality of service.

2. In calculating the rates charged by a locality for any communications service:

 a. The locality or its affiliate shall include within its rates an amount equal to all taxes, fees, and other assessments that would be applicable to a similarly situated private provider of the same communications services, including federal, state, and local taxes; franchise fees; permit fees; pole attachment fees; and any similar fees; and

b. The locality or its affiliate shall not price any of its communications services at a level that is less than the sum of: (i) the actual direct costs of providing the service; (ii) the actual indirect costs of providing the service; and (iii) the amount determined under subdivision 2a.

3. A locality or its affiliate shall keep accurate books and records of any provision of communications services.  A locality or its affiliate shall conduct an annual audit of its books and records associated with any provision of communications services, with such audit to be performed by an independent auditor approved by the Auditor of Public Accounts. Such audit shall include such criteria as the Auditor of Public Accounts deems appropriate and be filed with him, and with copies to be submitted to the Virginia Broadband Advisory Council.  If, after review of such audit, the Auditor of Public Accounts determines that there are violations of this chapter, he shall provide public notice of same, and the locality or its affiliate shall take appropriate corrective action to cure past violations and prevent future violations. […]

§ 56-484.31. Sale or disposal.

Any locality or its affiliate that seeks to sell or dispose of all or any material part of the infrastructure of an internal government services, broadband expansion services, or overbuild broadband services system, or any material portion of any subscriber or service contracts in connection therewith, shall do so by a public sale or auction process after advertisement.

By now, most readers get the point. This bill is a “plan for failure” for municipal broadband.

The ideological pretzel-bending required of Ms. Byron to do the telecom industry’s bidding is a sight to behold. Byron — a Republican — is openly advocating government price regulation, demands municipal providers turn over their books to be reviewed by her Virginia Broadband Advisory Council, which includes cable and telephone company lobbyists, and requires communities that want to abandon networks that fail under this legislative gulag to sell them to the lowest bidder, likely a cable or phone company that helped write the rules.

If this anti-consumer nightmare of a bill becomes law in Virginia, Christmas for Big Telecom will come early this year, and you’re paying… again.

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