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Frontier’s March to Oblivion: Bankruptcy In Its Future?

Frontier Communications is quickly becoming the Sears and Kmart of phone companies, on a slow march to bankruptcy or outright oblivion.

What started as a small independent phone company in Connecticut has grown through acquiring overpriced or decrepit landline cast-offs, mostly from Verizon, leaving itself with massive amounts of debt and infrastructure it is not willing to upgrade.

Despite rosy prognostications given to customers and shareholders, few are willing to take Frontier’s word that life is good with a company that still relies heavily on copper wire phone and DSL service.

Don’t take out word for it. Just watch the line of customers heading for the exits, canceling service and never looking back. As Frontier continues to lose customers fed up with its bad DSL service, rated even poorer than satellite-delivered broadband by Consumer Reports, its only chance to grow is to acquire more customers through more acquisitions. Unfortunately, after another disastrous transition for former Verizon customers in Florida, California, and Texas, Frontier’s bad reputation is likely to leave regulators and shareholders concerned about Frontier’s ability to manage yet more acquisitions in the future.

The Wall Street Journal reports Frontier bet on making it big with rural and suburban landlines, and lost.

Frontier’s mess has infuriated shareholders who invest in the stock mostly for its dividend payouts. The Norwalk, Conn. company recently announced it slashed its dividend, causing investors to flee the stock. Shares are down 69% so far this year. In a desperate bid to keep its Nasdaq listing, the company announced an unprecedented 1-for-15 reverse stock split just to prop up its share price.

Frontier’s slow hemorrhage of landline customers turned into a flash flood in the spring of 2016 after botching yet another “flash cutover” of customers acquired from Verizon. Verizon’s decision to sell off its landline networks in Florida, California, and Texas (mostly acquired from GTE by Verizon predecessor Bell Atlantic) was good news for Verizon, bad news for Frontier’s newest customers. Frontier hates to spend money to overhaul its copper-based facilities with fiber. It prefers to buy service areas from companies that undertook fiber upgrades on their own dime. Verizon had already upgraded large sections of those three states with its FiOS fiber to the home network. Frontier’s interest was primarily about acquiring that fiber, Frontier finance chief Perley McBride told the Wall Street Journal. Even McBride admitted Frontier failed to do a good job integrating those customers.

Consumer Reports rates Frontier DSL lower than one satellite broadband provider.

That should not be news to McBride or anyone else. Frontier has repeatedly failed every flash cutover it has attempted. The worst recent examples were Frontier’s botched 2010 transition in West Virginia, where the company inherited copper landlines neglected by Verizon for decades. Customers were infuriated by Frontier’s inability to maintain service and billing, and the company was investigated by state officials after many customers lost service, sometimes for weeks. In Connecticut, Frontier messed up a transition of its acquisition of AT&T’s U-verse system, having learned nothing from its mistakes in West Virginia or elsewhere. The company was forced to pay substantial service credits to residential and business customers that were offline for days. Thus it was no surprise yet another hurried transition would lead to disaster last spring. Regulators received thousands of complaints and a significant percentage of longtime Verizon customers left for good.

Frontier CEO Dan McCarthy appears to be even less credible with investors and customers than his predecessor Maggie Wilderotter, who may have retired with an understanding the long term future of Frontier looks pretty bleak. McCarthy has repeatedly put an optimistic face on Frontier’s increasingly poor performance.

John Jureller, Frontier’s last chief financial officer, routinely joined McCarthy in putting a brave face on Frontier’s stark numbers. He repeatedly tried to fuel optimism by telling investors the Verizon landline acquisition would make revenue trends “very positive.”

Jureller is no longer with Frontier. His replacement is the aforementioned McBride, who has a reputation as a “turnaround” expert, usually at the expense of employees. McBride has already helped oversee the permanent departure of at least 1,000 employees, laid off as part of what Frontier is calling “a customer-focused reorganization.” McCarthy prefers to tell Wall Street the layoffs are about reining in costs, despite the company’s profligate spending on acquisitions.

McBride told the Journal he doesn’t expect much revenue growth at Frontier anytime soon in California, Texas, and Florida. McCarthy’s grand turnaround plan isn’t working either. In fact, customer ratings of Frontier are falling about as fast as a rock thrown off a cliff.

There is little evidence Frontier will improve its dismal American Customer Satisfaction Index score in 2017. It finished dead last among internet service providers last year, falling 8% despite taking on new customers and allegedly upgrading others. Frontier’s overall grade was second to last across all categories in the telecom sector. Frontier managed to achieve bottom of the barrel scores despite broad upticks in customer satisfaction among other similar providers last year. Verizon FiOS achieved a 7% improvement to a best-ever customer satisfaction rating. In areas acquired by Frontier, as soon as the service was renamed Frontier FiOS, ratings plunged.

So has Frontier’s revenue, which continues a downward spiral. The company posted a loss of $373 million last year compared to $196 million in losses a year earlier. It has committed to spending $1 billion on its network this year, but customers uniformly report few substantial service improvements, and many wonder where the money is going.

Frontier is also upset that Verizon, in its zeal to make its landline properties in California, Texas, and Florida look as good as possible, stopped collection activity on overdue accounts just before the sale, saddling Frontier with thousands of deadbeat customers Verizon should have written off as uncollectable long ago, but never did.

Yesterday, the western New York office of the Better Business Bureau reported Frontier had achieved an “F” rating, amassed nearly 9,000 complaints, and out of 718 customer reviews, just six were positive:

We find a high volume and pattern of complaints exists concerning prior Verizon consumers who have not had a smooth transition to Frontier Communication since Frontier Communications took over various Verizon customers on April 1, 2016. Consumers have reported that services did not transition properly: many do not have services or are having spotty service with outages; many internet issues, from slow speeds to complete outages, consumers advise they are paying for certain levels of internet speeds but are not receiving those levels. Cable issues including missing networks, movie on demand concerns, issues with purchased subscriptions not carrying over, titles consumers have paid for (purchased licensed for) not being uploaded to their libraries and no solutions are being offered; and inability to access items like DVR boxes at the same time (multiple boxes in households not functioning); the Frontier App is not functioning for consumers; not fulfilling the rewards advertised with new service signups; charging consumers unauthorized third party charges on their telephone bill and not properly applying credits to consumer’s bills or consumers not being able to login to pay their bills.

When consumers call to receive assistance many report to BBB that they are hung up on or calls are disconnected and [are not followed up] by Frontier representatives. Consumers are transferred from representative to representative without receiving any assistance to their concerns many times resulting in a disconnection.

We have also identified a pattern in [Frontier’s] responses to complaints stating:

  • Per Tariff, in no event shall Frontier be liable in tort, contract, or otherwise for errors, omissions, interruptions, or delays to any person for personal injury, property damage, death, or economic losses. Frontier shall in no event exceed an amount equivalent to the proportionate charge to the customer for the period of service during which such mistake, omission, interruption, delay, error or defect occurs. Frontier will apply a credit based on the customer’s daily service rate.
  • We trust that this information will assist you in closing this complaint.  We regret any inconvenience that ‘consumer name’ may have experienced as a result of the above matter.

The business did not respond to the pattern of complaint correspondence BBB sent.

“Cable companies are beating the pants off Frontier,” Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst for New Street Research, told the newspaper. Heavy targeted marketing of Frontier’s customers, especially those served by Charter Communications in states like New York, Texas, Florida, and California are only accelerating Frontier’s customer cancellations.

Frontier’s cost consciousness and deferred upgrades as a result of its financial condition are only allowing cable companies to steal away more customers than ever, as the value for money gap continues to widen. While Frontier has failed to significantly upgrade many of their DSL customers still stuck with less than 10Mbps service, Charter Communications is gradually boosting their entry-level broadband speed to 100Mbps across its footprint and selling it at an introductory price of $44.99 a month.

Even Verizon sees the writing on the wall for the revenue prospects of landline service, especially in areas where it has not undertaken FiOS upgrades. Verizon DSL is still very common across its northeastern footprint, particularly in states like New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. Upstate New York is almost entirely DSL territory for Verizon, except for a few suburbs in Buffalo, Syracuse, and the state’s Capitol region. Verizon soured on upgrading its copper facilities in these areas years ago, and has contemplated selling them or moving customers to wireless service instead.

Verizon spokesman Bob Varettoni admitted Verizon’s strategy was to “sharpen our strategic focus on wireless,” which makes Verizon considerably more money than its wireline networks.

“If Verizon’s selling assets, they’re selling them for a reason,” Chaplin said. “Verizon had taken those markets [in California, Florida, and Texas] pretty close to saturation before they sold. That’s the point at which they punted the assets to Frontier.”

Frontier cannot continue to do business this way and expect to survive. Investors have circled 2020 on their calendar — the year $2.4 billion in debt payments are due. Another $2.5 billion is due in 2021 and $2.6 billion in 2022, not including interest charges and other obligations. Refinancing is expected to get tougher at struggling companies and interest rates are rising. The pattern is a familiar one in the telecom industry, where acquirers like FairPoint Communications and Hawaiian Telcom spent heavily on acquiring landline cast-offs from Verizon. Customer departures, a financial inability to upgrade facilities quickly enough, and heavy debts forced both companies into bankruptcy, precisely where Frontier Communications will end up if it does not change its management and business practices.

The Truth About Corporate-Backed Net Neutrality Opponents

It’s never too late to start your own policy institute or astroturf-phony consumer group. In reviewing some of the comments against Net Neutrality, I encountered a particularly odious set of organizations and individuals associated with a number of “institutes,” “centers,” and “Americans for This for That.” Most are funded by the Koch Brothers or quietly work with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) or other conservative and corporate donors that back “consumer-sounding” groups that literally work against the best interests of consumers.

The “groups” touting their unified opposition to Net Neutrality as “Over 65 Groups Against Obama FCC Internet Regulations,” is a major stretch, considering some are run out of UPS Stores or post office boxes, others haven’t updated their websites in years, have no web presence at all, or don’t discuss Net Neutrality (or any internet public policy) on their websites. Many are “asterisked” to reflect the fact the letter signer is expressing their own personal views and not necessarily those of the groups they are affiliated with.

Several signers are with groups operating under different names but share the same parent group or telephone number. Ironically, these birds of a feather often flock together and many of the same people also signed joint letters on a range of disparate public policy campaigns. They always take the side of corporate interests, usually coal, chemical companies, tobacco, oil and gas, and big cable and phone companies.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announces his opposition to Net Neutrality at a FreedomWorks and Small Business & Entrepreneur Council-sponsored event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Both organizations signed the letter opposing Net Neutrality.

Their joint letter opposing Net Neutrality relies on claims harvested from industry-funded and backed sources and dark money players including Hal Singer, Will Rinehart, and George Ford. Let’s take a closer look at who is signing:

  • Grover G. Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform: Everyone knows Grover. He’s been backed by deep pocketed conservative donors for years, usually fighting to keep taxes low for his friends. But now for some reason he is the first signer of this letter to the FCC opposing Net Neutrality.
  • Leigh Hixon, Alabama Policy Institute: A member of the Koch Bros./ALEC-backed State Policy Network.
  • Phil Kerpen, American Commitment: Kerpen has been affiliated with a lot of different groups. We tangled with him before and when he was working for Americans for Prosperity. Koch money.
  • Daniel Schneider, American Conservative Union: Lobbying organization.
  • Steve Pociask, American Consumer Institute: The telecom industry’s 100% fake “consumer group” that astroturfs industry talking points.
  • Center for Citizen Research: Just another name for the phony American Consumer Institute.
  • Lisa Nelson, American Legislative Exchange Council: Corporate funded group that writes its own state legislative bills and finds Republicans willing to call them their own.
  • Christine Harbin, Americans for Prosperity: Prosperity for the Koch Bros. (who founded this group) anyway.
  • Robert Alt, The Buckeye Institute: Koch money and a history of problems with accuracy.
  • Jeffrey Mazzella, Center for Individual Freedom: Hides its donor list, but there are ties to Big Tobacco and Karl Rove.
  • Grant Maloy, Center Right Coalition of Orlando: So small, it doesn’t even have a website.
  • Chuck Muth, Citizen Outreach: A Nevada blogger and Republican operative. Their bizarre issues agenda suggests possible funding. It includes “free market sugar, ‘contact lens’, and patent trolls.” Nothing about Net Neutrality.
  • Michael J. Bowen, Coalition for a Strong America: Funded entirely by the Koch Bros.’ Wisconsin Club for Growth, this group operates out of a UPS Store mailbox in Beaver Dam, Wisc.
  • Matthew Kandrach, Consumer Action for a Strong Economy: “The only thing making it possible to call his organization an ‘organization’ is that, along with its vice president, they make an organization of two people.” Amateurish combination of bad links and no spell-checking, a-la their Issues list which includes “Banking & Investmets” (sic).
  • Col. Francis X. De Luca USMR (Ret), Civitas Institute: Koch money.
  • Katie McAuliffe, Digital Liberty: “Digital Liberty is a project of Americans for Tax Reform,” which means it’s a Grover operation pretending to be more than what it actually is.
  • Hance Haney, Discovery Institute: Donor list is kept top secret to “avoid harassment” but this group usually obsesses about promoting “intelligent design” but also loves to lobby on telecom issues, which means industry money is extremely likely.
  • Adam Brandon, FreedomWorks Foundation: Its immediate predecessor was founded by the Koch Bros. Washington Post: “wealthy donors [sway] the direction of FreedomWorks and other political groups, which increasingly rely on unlimited contributions from corporations and financiers for their financial livelihood.” A handful of those donors are said to be responsible for the bulk of FreedomWorks’ annual budget.
  • Annette Meeks, Freedom Foundation of Minnesota: Conservative group that got the bulk of its funding from DonorsTrust, “the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement.”
  • Richard Watson, Florida Center/Right Coalition: See “Center Right Coalition of Orlando.”
  • David Barnes, Generation Opportunity: Koch money.
  • Ray Chadwick, Granite State Taxpayers: Lists National Taxpayers Union, Americans for Tax Reform, New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition, and Americans for Prosperity as “affiliates,” but also calls itself “non-partisan.”
  • Joseph Bast, The Heartland Institute: Close ties to ALEC and now hides its donor list.
  • Mike Krause, Local Colorado Project: No website at all, but we believe it is affiliated with the “Independence Institute,” a group closely tied to ALEC.
  • Andrew Langer, Institute for Liberty: Started as a one-man operation with a $25k budget until the corporate donors moved in. Now the group refuses to disclose its donor list, but SourceWatch discovered it shared a phone number with the National Taxpayers Union.
  • Tom Giovanetti, Institute for Policy Innovation: Ties to Koch Bros. and ALEC.
  • Seton Motley, Less Government: Close ties to ALEC and part of the Heartland Institute’s plethora of groups.
  • Daniel Garza, The LIBRE Initiative: Astroturf en español. A Koch operation trying to pass itself off as a Latino group.
  • Bartlett Cleland, Madery Bridge: It’s a bit hilarious to find a corporate lobbying firm listed as one of the 65 “groups” against Net Neutrality. But at least it’s a case of being honest. Like most of the others, there is a financial incentive to take that position.
  • Dee Hodges, Maryland Taxpayers Association, Inc. – Website hasn’t been updated for over a year. Nothing about Net Neutrality. Zombie group?
  • Mike Wendy, MediaFreedom: We exposed Mike Wendy’s close ties to the telecom industry back in 2010, and we notice his and several other names listed among the 65 “groups” here were part of the ridiculous Progress & Freedom Foundation (now defunct), which was the final destination of the generously filled money train from some of the biggest telecom companies in the country. MediaFreedom is comprised primarily of Wendy’s blog attacking media reform groups like Free Press. His bio shows an endless journey working for a number of groups quietly funded by the cable and telephone companies.
  • Henry Kriegel, Montanans for Tax Reform: Their website has not been updated in years and the rest appears to be little more than a post office box in Bozeman.
  • Brent Mead, Montana Policy Institute: Ties to Koch Bros. and ALEC.
  • Scott Cleland, NetCompetition: The Payola Pundit. Mr. Cleland doesn’t like to talk about his close ties to ALEC, where he served as co-chair of the Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force. Members of that committee include Comcast and AT&T.
  • Lorenzo Montanari, Property Rights Alliance: Really Americans for Tax Reform under yet another name.
  • Don Racheter, Ph.D., Public Interest Institute: Five people on a college campus in Iowa. Ties to ALEC. Claims to be non-partisan but attacked “liberals” all over its website.
  • Mike Stenhouse, Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity: You guessed it. Ties with ALEC and Franklin Center, which funds reporters of all things.
  • Paul Gessing, Rio Grande Foundation: Ties to Koch Bros., ALEC, and Franklin Center.
  • Tom Struble, R Street Institute: Broken record — ties to Koch Bros. and Franklin Center.
  • Karen Kerrigan, Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council: Has unnamed “corporate partners.” Ironic opponent of Net Neutrality, considering it is supposed to represent the interests of small startups, entrepreneurs, and small businesses — exactly the types that would be discriminated against by giant ISPs unconcerned about Net Neutrality.
  • James L. Martin, 60 Plus Association: The corporate astroturf version of AARP funded by the Koch Bros. Mr. Martin is a prolific letter-signer when corporate interests are involved. Check out this letter on another issue and notice how many of the groups signing that letter just happen to be involved in this Net Neutrality opposition campaign.
  • David Williams, Taxpayers Protection Alliance: The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) is part of the network of front groups funded by the Koch Bros. and their political network.
  • Berin Szoka, TechFreedom: “Sucking on the teat of the phone and cable companies” who donate tens of thousands of dollars to TechFreedom to act as their sock puppet.
  • Gerrye Johnston, Women for Democracy in America, Inc.: Very, very odd organization (it’s now MEN and Women for Democracy by the way.) Internet public policy is so far afield from their mission statement, you’d need to book a flight to find it.
  • Mary Adams, Maine Center-Right Coalition: See Center Right Coalition of Orlando. We think this group is normally concerned about illegal immigration, but there does not seem to be a formal coordinated web presence.

Stop the Cap!’s Net Neutrality Comments to FCC

July 17, 2017

Marlene H. Dortch, Secretary
Federal Communications Commission
Office of the Secretary
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554

Dear Ms. Dortch,

Stop the Cap! is writing to express our opposition to any modification now under consideration of the 2015 Open Internet Order.

Since 2008, our all-volunteer consumer organization has been fighting against data caps, usage-based billing and for Net Neutrality and better broadband service for consumers and businesses in urban and rural areas across the country.

Providing internet access has become a bigger success story for the providers that earn billions selling the service than it has been for many consumers enduring substandard service at skyrocketing prices.

It is unfortunate that while some have praised Clinton era deregulatory principles governing broadband, they may have forgotten those policies were also supposed to promote true broadband competition, something sorely lacking for many consumers.

As a recent Deloitte study[1] revealed, “only 38 percent of homes have a choice of two providers offering speeds of at least 25Mbps. In rural communities, only 61 percent of people have access to 25Mbps wireline broadband, and when they do, they can pay as much as a 3x premium over suburban customers.”

In upstate New York, most residents have just one significant provider capable of meeting the FCC’s 25Mbps broadband standard – Charter Communications. In the absence of competition, many customers are complaining their cable bills are rising.[2]

Now providers are lobbying to weaken, repeal, or effectively undermine the 2015 Open Internet Order, and we oppose that.

We have heard criticisms that the 2015 Order’s reliance on Title II means it is automatically outdated because it depends on enforcement powers developed in the 1930s for telephone service. Notwithstanding the fact many principles of modern law are based on an even older document – the Bill of Rights, the courts have already informed the FCC that the alternative mechanisms of enforcement authority that some seem motivated to return to are inadequate.

In a 2-1 decision in 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit ruled:

“Given that the Commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the Commission from nonetheless regulating them as such. Because the Commission has failed to establish that the anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules do not impose per se common carrier obligations, we vacate those portions of the Open Internet Order.”[3]

In fact, the only important element of the pre-2015 Open Internet rules that survived that court challenge was a disclosure requirement that insisted providers tell subscribers when their internet service is being throttled or selected websites are intentionally discriminated against.

Unfortunately, mandatory disclosure alone does not incent providers to cease those practices in large sections of the country where consumers have no suitable alternative providers to choose from.

Reclassifying broadband companies as telecommunications services did not and has not required the FCC to engage in rate regulation or other heavy-handed oversight. It did send a clear message to companies about what boundaries were appropriate, and we’ve avoided paid prioritization and other anti-consumer practices that were clearly under consideration at some of the nation’s top internet service providers.

In fact, the evidence the 2015 Open Internet Order is working can be found where providers are attempting to circumvent its objectives. One way still permitted to prioritize or favor selected traffic is zero rating it so use of preferred partner websites does not count against your data allowance.[4] Other providers intentionally throttle some video traffic, offering not to include that traffic in your data allowance or cap.[5] Still others are placing general data caps or allowances on their internet services, while exempting their own content from those caps.[6]

Our organization is especially sensitive to these issues because our members are already paying high internet bills with no evidence of any rate reductions for usage-capped internet service. In fact, many customers pay essentially the same price whether their provider caps their connection or not. It seems unlikely consumers will be the winners in any change of Open Internet policies. Claims that usage caps or paid prioritization policies benefit consumers with lower prices or better service are illusory. One thing is real: the impact of throttled or degraded video content which can be a major deterrent for consumers contemplating disconnecting cable television and relying on cheaper internet-delivered video instead.

Arguments that broadband investment has somehow been harmed as a result of the 2015 Order are suspect, if only because much of this research is done at the behest of the telecom industry who helped underwrite the expense of that research. Remarkably, similar claims have not been made by executives of the companies involved in their reports to investors. Those companies, mostly publicly-traded, have a legal obligation to report materially adverse events to their shareholders, yet there is no evidence the 2015 Order has created a significant or harmful drag on investment.

In a barely regulated broadband duopoly, where no new significant competition is likely to emerge in the next five years (and beyond), FCC oversight and enforcement is often the only thing protecting consumers from the abuses inherent in that non-competitive market. Preserving the existing Open Internet rules without modification is entirely appropriate and warranted, and has not created any significant burdens on providers that continue to make substantial profits selling broadband service to consumers.

Transferring authority to an overburdened Federal Trade Commission, not well versed on telecom issues and with a proven record of taking a substantial amount of time before issuing rulings on its cases, would be completely inappropriate and anti-consumer.

Therefore, Stop the Cap!, on behalf of our members, urges the FCC to retain the 2015 Open Internet Order as-is, leaving intact the Title II enforcement foundation.

Respectfully yours,

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder and Director

Footnotes:

[1] https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/consulting/articles/communications-infrastructure-upgrade-deep-fiber-imperative.html#1

[2] “Thousands of Time Warner Cable Video Customers Flee Spectrum’s Higher Prices.” (http://bit.ly/2tjHJ8f); “Lexington’s Anger at Spectrum Cable Keeps Rising. What Can We Do?” (http://www.kentucky.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/tom-eblen/article160754069.html)

[3] http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/3AF8B4D938CDEEA685257C6000532062/$file/11-1355-1474943.pdf

[4] https://cdn3.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/7575775/Letter_to_R._Quinn_12.1.16.0.pdf

[5] https://www.t-mobile.com/offer/binge-on-streaming-video.html

[6] http://www.chicagotribune.com/bluesky/technology/ct-data-cap-policies-20151214-story.html

Kansas’ Double-Down on Trickle-Down, Deregulation Flops as Residents Leave the State

We will mail it to you on floppy disks because your internet connection is too slow to download it.

While FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) decry government regulation as responsible for destroying capital and incentives to invest, the state of Kansas this week ended its all-out experiment with deregulation and trickle-down economics on steroids, with a Republican-dominated state legislature calling it a giant flop.

In charge of the Grand Experiment in Trickle-Down, Doubled-Down is Gov. Sam Brownback, who has systematically hobbled the state’s social spending and investment programs since becoming governor in 2011. He adopted his ‘vision thing’ from Reaganomics proponent Art Laffer, who apparently forgot the Reagan Administration’s penchant for all things deregulation was not all sweetness and light and had to be tempered by President George H.W. Bush after he was elected in 1988.

But what if history could have a second chance? What if a state kept its pledge of no new taxes and slashed regulation and oversight to the bone. Would it result in a free market paradise where government got out of the way for the public good? Would lower taxes result in more tax revenue as Kansas businesses boomed? Would infrastructure take care of itself?

To find out, Brownback slashed the state’s income tax, eliminated the top income tax bracket and delivered a disproportionate share of the tax cut benefits to the economic motivators (also known as Kansas’ richest families) who would supposedly use the surplus to invest in businesses and jobs. At the urging of the powerful small business lobby, backed by the Koch Brothers and their octopus of astroturf anti-tax groups demanding reform, Brownback zeroed out taxes on “pass-thru” income, which effectively allowed anyone running a LLC or small business to evade taxes.

There were moderate Republicans in Kansas that warned about the prospects of Brownback’s questionable assertion that low taxes and low funding of the state government would bring a new era of growth and prosperity. But dark money and Koch’s political machine saw to it those politicians were “de-elected” and replaced with Brownback’s army of minions.

In addition to creating budgetary ruin with tax revenue cratering, essential digital infrastructure crashed and burned. Deregulation and a mediocre state broadband expansion effort didn’t make internet service in Kansas better. In fact it got worse, along with the finger-pointing over who was responsible.

Last fall, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts brought then FCC commissioner Ajit Pai to the community of Allen to meet with executives working for a dozen small telephone companies who were having trouble upgrading their networks across the great expanse of rural Kansas.

Brownback

Roberts wasn’t ready to claim federal government regulation was responsible for the mess. But Pai’s reflexive claims that deregulation incentivizes for-profit companies to invest in better broadband simply wasn’t working in Kansas either. The only solution for The Free Marketeers in rural Kansas turns out to be handing out government money to expand rural broadband, except in Kansas, there was very little money to be had after Brownback took an ax to the state budget.

The Wichita Eagle unintentionally drew a contrast between the thinking of providers that want to blame everyone else for the problem and plain reality for Brian Thomas, who works for the Blue Valley Tele-Communications Company.

“It really all comes down to a quality of life perspective,” Thomas told the newspaper. “I think we all live that. That’s our jobs, to provide that.”

The newspaper noted that without government money, the only way private companies could afford to pay to replace thousands of miles of ancient copper phone wiring in favor of fiber would be to make internet service so expensive that only businesses and the ultra-wealthy would be able to afford it.

So while Brownback’s great social experiment carried on, internet expansion and upgrades stalled in many communities across Kansas. In Allen, where Pai met to extol the virtues of private investment, the town librarian at Allen’s public library got some help from the Manhattan (Kansas) library system to install an inexpensive Wi-Fi hotspot that, once switched on, almost immediately filled its parking lot day and night with what the newspaper called “internet-starved townspeople.”

Allen County, Kan.

“There are several people who will watch movies outside” after hours, town librarian Nikki Plankington said. “The kids use it for the Pokemon Go thing. I don’t know what that’s all about, but the kids use it.”

While the public library did its part, Kansas’ for-profit private internet providers are going in a different direction – complaining a lot and asking for handouts with no strings attached.

The Eagle reported Pai’s meeting with rural telecom executives turned into a ‘whine and cheese’ reception. The phone companies had a laundry list of dislikes they wanted the deregulation-minded Pai to fix for them while they pondered upgrades:

  • The Universal Service Fund/Connect America Fund, financed by ratepayers through surcharges on their phone bills, was “obsolete” and didn’t provide enough money.
  • The federal government didn’t allow ISPs to chase after the deepest pockets to pay for their upgrades — popular online websites like Netflix and Amazon.com.
  • The FCC’s definition of broadband as 25Mbps ignored the fact Kansas phone companies wanted to deliver considerably lower speed service, claiming customers don’t want more than 10Mbps.

If the government could be lobbied to lower standards, eliminate regulation, and deliver or at least compel a cash welfare infusion from content providers and ratepayers, there was no need to ask rich Kansans to stop counting their money long enough to invest some of it in better broadband.

Catherine Moyer from Pioneer Communications claimed it was unfair to ask companies and customers to pay for upgrades when those internet titans like Netflix, Amazon, and Google make countless billions in profits using Pioneer’s network with absolutely no compensation for doing so.

“My customers and the customers here in Allen and all the customers in Wichita for that matter that have voice service pay a proportion of their bill,” she said. But, “there’s a whole group of people and companies utilizing the network that don’t pay into the fund in any meaningful way … so they haven’t helped build out this network.”

When the newspaper suggested she was effectively asking for higher taxes and paid lanes for internet content companies like Netflix that Moyer claimed was consuming 35% of Pioneer’s available bandwidth, she didn’t seem to have any objections.

“It’s not necessarily what people want to see, but in the same light, if you want these networks and you want these speeds, you have to somehow fund that. And who should fund it?” Moyer asked.

The next issue that doesn’t work for Kansas telecom companies is the FCC’s standard that broadband service be at least 25Mbps, and if a phone or cable company wants public dollars to build out their networks, they better choose a technology capable of delivering that kind of speed.

“One thing that kind of concerns me a little bit is having the FCC dictate, or Washington dictate, the level of speed I’m required to have in order to maintain a certain level of funding,” said Archie Macias of Wheat State Telephone, which serves rural communities in Butler, Cowley, Chase and Lyon counties. Macias is upset because his system uses fiber optics that can easily handle 25Mbps, but his customers only want to pay for 10Mbps.

“I’m not going to build a network that’s like having 500 channels on a TV that you’re going to watch 12 or 13,” he told the newspaper.

Wheat State currently offers four broadband plans in areas where fiber service is available:

  • $39.99 Pro (10/2Mbps)
  • $49.99 Multi-Pro (15/3Mbps)
  • $69.99 Power-Pro (25/5Mbps)
  • $79.99 Mega-Pro (50/20Mbps)
  • $10 discount when bundled with other services

What customers choose for broadband service is often an issue of pricing, not speed.

In more populated parts of Kansas, customers are still trying to cope with DSL service that has not seen significant upgrades for a decade. Since Brownback isn’t doing much to help, and tax cuts and deregulation have failed to inspire the kind of robust broadband expansion “light touch” regulation is supposed to provoke, a lot of Kansans are leaving the state for good.

An abandoned farm.

One of those threatening to flee is Christianne Parks, who lives in Allen and endures not-even-close-to-being-broadband.

“Eventually, I probably would get bored out of my mind and leave,” 19-year old Parks told the newspaper when asked what she would do if her broadband situation did not change.

Last fall, the newspaper pinpointed some of the real problems afflicting the state’s economy and missing from the list were taxes and regulation. Deregulation-inspired consolidation in the state’s critical agribusiness sector decimated rural farms and the local economies that depended on them. When the farmers leave, Main Street businesses soon follow. The 1970s and 1980s was the era of the Rust Belt in the northeast and midwest. Now parts of the midwest including Kansas risk being labeled a Wheat Belt of economic deterioration.

Since 2000, 81 of Kansas’ 105 counties have lost population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The consensus is that trend will get worse, according to the newspaper – especially among young people – until and unless someone can find a way to get better internet service to the outlands. Brownback’s hands-off policies favoring providers are in contrast to New York’s more aggressive rural broadband funding program that seeks to achieve near 100% penetration of broadband service in the state over the next few years. New York regulators also compel companies doing business in the state to share some of their wealth from mergers and acquisitions, most recently requiring Charter Communications and Altice to expand their broadband networks to improve service and reach customers they don’t serve today.

The free-market-solves-everything concept celebrated by Pai and the Koch Brothers has now been tested and failed in Kansas. Among the few bright spots for broadband in Kansas are civic-minded telephone or cable providers that look beyond return on investment formulas in their community, and more commonly community-owned broadband networks or co-ops with a motive beyond profit — delivering decent broadband to maintain, sustain, and grow their local economies.

Recovery from the “free market miracle” train wreck started last fall, when a wave of moderate Democrats and Republicans were elected with a pledge to do everything possible to kill Brownback’s vision of paradise. This week, the Republican-dominated legislature had enough of living in Brownback’s PretendLand and overrode his veto of their plan to raise income taxes across the board and kill his legalized tax evasion scheme for business owners to bring in an additional $1.2 billion over the next two years to invest in Kansas.

The improved broadband that could result may give something for the state’s wealthiest citizens to do in their free time besides count their money.

New Report Attacking Municipal Broadband Thin on Facts, Heavy on Hypocrisy

When the multibillion dollar telecom industry wants to push its narrative about telecom public policy, it employs an army of secretly funded astroturf groups, corporate-backed “policy institutes,” professional lobbyists, and ex-regulators and politicians that help move their agenda forward.

One of the latest methods to win influence is finding researchers willing to produce scholarly reports offering “independent” analyses of regulatory policies or telecom company business practices. It has now become a cottage industry, with the same select few authors regularly writing papers that align perfectly with the interests of cable and telephone companies that sponsor the groups, think tanks, or schools that employ them.

The blurred line between academic independence and “research-for-hire” has become increasingly indefensible at the nation’s think tanks, where politically motivated individuals and corporate donors funnel millions in funding with the expectation the think tank, its leadership and researchers will fall in line with the political views of the donor and act accordingly. When they don’t, the checks stop coming or a donor-led coup d’état similar to what happened in April at the Heritage Foundation can follow.

The idea that a think tank represents an independent body of researchers tackling random issues of the day without bias is quaint and often a thing of the past. These days, some think tanks and policy institutes dependent on corporate and big donor contributions are little more than willing corporate tools in policy and regulatory debates. Last month, this reached a new level of absurdity with the announcement that the MGM Resorts — a Las Vegas casino, was starting its own policy institute co-chaired by retired Sen. Harry Reid and former House Speaker John Boehner. Neither will be working for free. The stated purpose of the MGM think tank is to “concentrate on comprehensive, authentic and relevant national and international policy issues that impact the travel, tourism, hospitality and gaming industries and the global communities in which they operate.”

In short, it’s another way for the casino industry to lobby while operating under a veneer of independence at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

If a researcher cannot find work at a policy institute or think tank, they can always produce research papers under the auspices of a university or business school that welcomes corporate funding. These institutions assume they are protecting their credibility and reputation with claims of a firewall between industry money and research, yet too often the reports that result from this arrangement are embarrassingly industry-aligned. Questions of conflict of interest are also increasingly common when a researcher turns up at hearings to deliver ostensibly independent testimony on issues like regulation or their views about multi-billion dollar mergers and acquisitions that are in perfect alignment with the companies that donate to that researcher’s employer.

Yoo

Researchers like Christopher Yoo at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia bristle at the notion corporate dollars play any role in his research or findings, despite the fact he was accused of a major conflict of interest testifying strongly in favor of Comcast’s attempted merger with Time Warner Cable in 2014. Yoo defended the Comcast deal at every turn, telling Congress the merger would have little impact on consumer prices or competition, despite the fact ample antitrust concerns ultimately torpedoed the deal.

Yoo avoided disclosing the fact he had ties to Comcast’s chief lobbyist David Cohen, who sat five seats to his right at the hearing. Cohen served as chairman of the board of trustees at the University of Pennsylvania and Comcast is an extremely generous financial donor of the university — two obvious conflicts of interest that observers expressed shock were not disclosed in advance. Yoo focused instead on delivering testimony we characterized back in 2014 as “a nod in Cohen’s direction with an affirming, ‘whatever he said.'”

When the media called him out on the subject, Yoo downplayed any connection or conflict.

“The views of any other person in the university administration do not have any impact on my academic views or any public statements I make,” Yoo told the Washington Post. He added the Center for Technology, Innovation, and Competition that he founded was only “a tiny little bit” funded by the cable industry. We’ll fact check that claim shortly.

Like Harry Reid and John Boehner, Christopher Yoo does not work for free. Despite his claims that as a tenured professor, his academic freedom is protected, Mr. Yoo’s recent written work has been so closely aligned with the interests of the nation’s cable and phone companies, he comes alarmingly close to being an academic version of a corporate sock puppet.

Yoo is hardly the only researcher that has an amazing record of producing studies that coincidentally line up in perfect unison with the public policy interests of giant cable companies. Daniel Lyons of Boston College Law School prodigiously writes papers defending the cable industry’s practice of data caps. He’s been hard at work since 2012 trying to convince anyone that would listen that data caps are good for consumers, competition, and innovation. Like Yoo, Lyons was also a big supporter of Comcast’s attempted purchase of Time Warner Cable, “spontaneously” and “independently” penning long letters to the editor to newspapers all around the country defending the deal.

So what causes researchers to suddenly decide to write about some topics but not others? Random chance or money?

Last month, Yoo unveiled his latest paper, “Municipal Fiber in the United States: An Empirical Assessment of Financial Performance,” co-authored by Timothy Pfenninger.

Yoo claimed in his executive summary that the “current emphasis on infrastructure projects in the United States has intensified the debate over municipal broadband.” That’s news to us. In fact, the high water mark of the municipal broadband debate occurred in the last administration when FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler sought to nullify corporate ghostwritten municipal broadband bans passed by several state legislatures.

Yoo decided he would be a “helper” for cities contemplating repeating the success of EPB, the municipal power company in Chattanooga, Tenn., that built a successful public gigabit fiber to the home broadband network for the city and nearby communities. The “widespread news coverage” of EPB that Yoo wrote about, without mentioning it was almost exclusively positive, has apparently inspired a number of other communities to contemplate repeating Chattanooga’s success story.

In what we like to call Yoo’s “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” opening, he warns “city leaders who turn to existing municipal fiber analyses for guidance will discover that these studies limit their focus to the supposed success stories instead of systematically analyzing these systems’ financial performance.”

So instead of those studies, Yoo offers his own, which he claims “fills the information gap” by creating a whole new systematic analysis, using Yoo’s own hand-crafted criteria, to judge the success or failure of municipal broadband.

He doesn’t waste any time hinting municipal broadband is a bad idea, puts cities at risk for defaults, bond rating reductions, and taxpayer bailouts. In fact, Yoo characterized municipal broadband as a mere distraction from more important priorities he claims communities have. And besides, there is evidence showing “little current need for [the] high broadband speeds” that community broadband networks offer that incumbent cable and phone companies won’t.

Yoo’s take is like bringing a boyfriend home to your parents who claim they support and love you no matter who you date but then spend the next two hours telling you why he’s all wrong for you.

Follow the Money

We thought it would be useful to look into Yoo’s claims and conclusions more carefully. As always, we focused on two things: fact-checking the evidence and following the money.

It took very little time to turn up more red flags than one would find at a May Day parade in Red Square.

Academics with conflicts of interest or uncomfortably close ties to the telecom industry and the reports they peddle often escape scrutiny, because their research can intimidate journalists unprepared to challenge their premise, research, or conclusions without a substantial investment of time and fact-checking. But as we’ve learned over the years, there are very clear warning signs when more investigation is necessary.

We’re not alone. This week National Public Radio updated its Ethics Handbook with “a cautionary tip sheet about relying on the work product of think tanks.

It is “our job to know about ‘experts’ conflicts of interest” and share that information with our audience (or not use experts whose conflicts are problematic).  As we’ve said, it’s not optional. Click here for related reading from JournalistsResource.org. It includes “some questions journalists should ask when researching think tanks.” Among them:

  • “Look at the think tank’s annual report. Who is on staff? On the board or advisory council? Search for these people. They have power over the think tank’s agenda; do they have conflicts of interest? Use OpenSecrets’ lobby search, a project of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, to see if any of these individuals are registered lobbyists and for whom.
  • “Does the organization focus on one issue alone? If so, look carefully at its funding.
  • “Does the organization clearly identify its political leanings or its neutrality?
  • “Does the annual report list donors and amounts? Are large donors anonymous? If the answer to the second question is yes, you should be concerned that big donors may be trying to hide their influence.
  • “Does it have a conflict of interest policy?”

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy is even more frank in its warning to journalists who rely on think tanks and industry-based research:

[…] Entrenched conflicts of interest across the political spectrum, and pandering to donors, often raise questions about their independence and integrity. A few years ago, think tanks were seen as places for wonky scholars and former officials to bang out solutions to critical policy problems. But today, as the Boston Globe has written, many “are pursuing fiercely partisan agendas and are funded by undisclosed corporations, wealthy individuals, or both.”

Something smells funny.

Unsurprisingly, Yoo’s research was immediately distributed and promoted by a range of groups critical of public broadband to build what they believe to be an authoritative record against municipal broadband initiatives. In effect, ‘it isn’t just us saying public broadband is a bad idea, look at this ”independent” research.’

But exactly how independent is the research produced by Mr. Yoo and his Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition (CTIC)? Unfortunately, Yoo does not follow the common practice of disclosing the funding sources for his research and report. If it was funded through the Center, that should be disclosed. If a corporate donor provided funding or a stipend, that should be disclosed. If part or all of Mr. Yoo’s compensation comes from a bank account replenished in part or whole by an outside company, that should be disclosed. If he wrote the report in this spare time for fun, that should be disclosed as well.

Since Mr. Yoo doesn’t talk about the money, we will.

The CTIC’s website spends some time predicting the obvious conflicts of interest questions raised by its extensive corporate donor base.

“The Center for Technology, Innovation & Competition (CTIC) receives financial support from corporations, foundations, and other organizations that is vital to our continued growth and success,” the website states, which means without that support, there probably would be no CTIC.

Which corporations donate money is important to consider. If a substantial amount of a researcher’s funding comes from telecom companies that are either on record opposing public broadband, or would be forced to compete with a municipal broadband provider, that would represent a very clear conflict of interest.

CTIC attempts to inoculate itself from accusations it has that inherent conflict of interest with this statement on its website:

“CTIC does not accept financial support that limits our ability to conduct independent research. This allows us to produce scholarship that is free from outside influence and consistent with Penn’s ethics and values. All corporate donors agree to provide funding free from restrictions and promised results or deliverables.”

But that is not adequate enough to protect readers from researcher bias introduced by the donor funding that CTIC admits is “vital” to their existence. Consider the example of the tobacco industry, one of the first to leverage researchers willing to write papers created to distort, downplay, or confuse the debate about the safety of tobacco products. There was no need for a tobacco company to limit researcher independence or demand a certain result. That allowed researchers to claim editorial independence, but they also understood that if their reports did not meet the expectations of the tobacco company that paid for them, they would never be made public and that researcher would never be used again.

A corporate donor is unlikely to continue funding an organization that issues reports it disagrees with or worse, publicly bolsters its competitors or criticizes its public policy agenda. Had Yoo concluded municipal broadband was an ideal solution for the rural broadband, internet speed, and competition problems in this country would AT&T, CTIA, Comcast, Charter/Time Warner Cable, NCTA and Verizon still send them checks?

While considering the veracity of Mr. Yoo’s research and conclusions, do you believe CTIC’s donors would be pleased or unhappy about the report? Here is the list of companies and groups that help keep the lights on at CTIC:

  • American Tower (owns cellular and broadcast transmission towers)
  • AT&T
  • Broadband for America (funded by the cable/telco industry)
  • Cellular Operators Association of India
  • Comcast-NBC Universal
  • CTIA (the cellular industry’s top lobbying trade association)
  • Facebook
  • Google
  • GSMA (Mobile industry trade association)
  • ICANN
  • Information Technology Industry Council
  • Intel
  • Internet Society
  • Microsoft
  • National Science Foundation
  • NCTA (cable industry’s top lobbying group)
  • New York Bar Foundation
  • Qualcomm
  • Time Warner Cable (now Charter Communications)
  • Verizon
  • Walt Disney Co.

It’s clear there are few friends of municipal broadband donating to the CTIC while we count about eight likely opponents.

Even the way Mr. Yoo introduced his municipal broadband report at a Wharton Business School “broadband breakfast discussion” opened the door to more questions. To suggest the panel was stacked against public broadband would be an understatement.

In addition to Mr. Yoo, the former mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell — who was hired by Comcast-NBC Universal less than two months after coming out in strong support of the merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal, was tasked with keynote remarks. Joining both on the discussion panel was Frank Louthan, a Wall Street analyst for Raymond James who regularly covers big cable and telco companies for investors and wouldn’t appreciate giving the bad news to clients about municipal broadband’s profit-killing competition and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the corporate dark money-backed American Action Forum who seemed enamored of all-things Comcast. In 2014, Holtz-Eakin went out of his way to write a long piece urging regulators to approve the Comcast-Time Warner Cable acquisition as soon as possible.

Anyone who wanted to hear a positive view of municipal broadband would have had to eat breakfast somewhere else.

Yoo’s “Evidence”

For the benefit of readers and local officials that want a more detailed refutation of Mr. Yoo’s study and his findings on the granular level, we point you to Community Broadband Networks’ excellent report debunking the obviously biased findings from Mr. Yoo, who appears to be working on behalf of some of America’s largest telecom companies. Mr. Yoo will claim those companies did not sponsor the study, but we remind readers that without the extensive donor support of Yoo’s group from the telecom industry, there would likely be no study.

But we found several red flags to share as well.

Red Flag #1: Changing the metrics.

Mr. Yoo hand-selects the metrics by which municipal network success or failure can be determined… by him. He relies on Net Present Value, a particularly complicated and not always accurate measurement of a network’s prospects for success or failure. Clearly, every municipal network will face some challenges. Many are in areas deemed unprofitable to serve by the commercial telecom industry. But then, municipal broadband is all about solving the problem of broadband accessibility that other ISPs won’t. These public networks don’t exist to make shareholders and executives rich, nor do they have to allocate money to pay shareholder dividends. Even commercial ISPs have their hands out looking for subsidies to wire rural areas they would otherwise never serve. There is more to the story of municipal broadband than profit and loss.

Red Flag #2: Financing concrete.

Mr. Yoo’s predictions that some networks may never pay off their debts or will take dozens of years or more doing so assumes almost nothing changes for those networks in the near or distant future. Broadband networks are constantly evolving, as are potential revenue sources. Imagine a cable company having to exclusively rely on cable TV revenue to pay down their debt. Then remember the day cable operators discovered they could use a portion of their existing network to sell something called “broadband” service for another $30 a month. Ancillary revenue from the introduction of innovative new products and services is precisely how the cable industry successfully boosted subscriber revenue even in mature markets where adding new customers was challenging. They followed the time-tested principle of selling more things to the customers they already have.

But then Mr. Yoo agreed with this concept himself… when he was talking about the some of the same telecom companies that write his group checks. Municipal networks are somehow… different, however:

The development of the Internet has greatly increased the value of the services that can be provided by last-mile networks. The rollout of convergent technologies, such as Internet telephony and packet video, will break down the barriers that previously limited the revenues generated by any particular transmission technology. Cable is already able to provide voice through its coaxial network, and it is just a matter of time before telephone companies are able to provide video. Application-based distinctions between transmission media will completely collapse once all applications become packetized.

He also downplays the tool of refinancing. Altice turns that concept into a weekend hobby. This European cable conglomerate’s business plan leverages debt like no other cable operator. It manages that debt by regularly repackaging and refinancing debt at lower rates as it also works to pay it down. These same options are available to municipal providers.

Red Flag #3: Municipal broadband is too expensive, or is it?

There are massive start-up costs to build broadband networks, costs that might put a community’s finances at risk, Yoo’s report concludes. That leaves the obvious impression communities should avoid going there. But that wasn’t the attitude he had in 2006, when network costs were even higher than they are today.

“The economics of the last mile have changed radically in recent years,” Yoo said. “The fixed costs of establishing last-mile networks have dropped through the floor. Switching equipment that used to take up an entire building can now be housed in a box roughly the size of a personal computer. Copper wires have been replaced by a series of innovations, including terrestrial microwave, satellites, and fiber optics, which have greatly reduced the costs of transmission.”

When he is talking about municipal broadband, he seems to tell an entirely different story. Why might that be?

Red Flag #4: Yoo misrepresents the problem.

Mr. Yoo has reflexively defended his donor base for several years across a myriad of broadband public policy issues — data caps/zero rating, Net Neutrality, mergers and acquisitions, network costs, and more. The hypocrisy emerges when his entirely different standards for municipal broadband become clear.

The toll from “personal turmoil and distraction” Yoo worries about with municipal broadband projects ignores the real problem — the lack of suitable broadband in a community with no solution in sight. Just ask families that drive their kids to a fast food restaurant to borrow a Wi-Fi connection to complete homework assignments, or the difficulty getting broadband in a neighborhood bypassed by DSL or cable. If a community defines broadband as an essential utility, it provides it even if it doesn’t turn a profit. Public infrastructure projects are not unusual. The amount of money spent by an industry worried about losing its duopoly or monopoly profits to oppose such projects could have been spent on improving and expanding service.

If a local community wants a municipal solution, it is Mr. Yoo’s donors that create most of the turmoil by ghostwriting municipal broadband bans into state law and filing groundless stall tactic lawsuits designed to protect their markets or run up costs.

Red Flag #5: There is “little current need” for high broadband speed (unless Comcast offers it).

One of the best clues that Mr. Yoo’s research isn’t as “independent” as he implies is the fact his conclusions seem to change depending on whether he is referring to a corporate ISP or a municipal provider. For example, Yoo’s study downplays the importance of gigabit fiber speeds. In one highlighted statement, Yoo declares, “The U.S. take-up rate of gigabit service remains very low, and media outlets report that consumers are questioning if gigabit service is really necessary.”

“The media” in this case is Multichannel News, a cable industry trade publication that has changed its tune about that subject recently and now publishes stories regularly about ISPs across the country moving towards gigabit speeds. In the article noted by Yoo, the story quotes a single CenturyLink executive who claims customers can live with the slower speeds CenturyLink often provides, but also admits his company is working to deploy, wait for it, gigabit-capable networks. As Stop the Cap! has explained to readers for a decade, the companies that always claim consumers don’t need a gigabit are the same ones that do not offer it to a large percentage (or any) of their customers. Yoo fails to explain why so many ISPs are preoccupied with offering fast internet speeds that he declares are unwanted, especially when a municipal provider plans to offer them.

Yoo’s allegiance to the current big cable and phone company provider paradigm is revealed when you scrutinize his reasons why community fiber is unnecessary. Take this example from his report:

“Wireless technologies—such as 5G—and legacy copper technologies—such as G.fast—are also exploring ways to provide gigabit speeds without incurring the cost associated with FTTH.”

“Exploring” is very different from “delivering.” Let’s also not forget he held a very different view when he wasn’t slamming municipal broadband:

“On the one hand, the Bell System created a telephone network that was the envy of the world and pioneered Nobel Prize-winning breakthroughs such as the transistor. On the other hand, it was extremely slow to deploy innovative technologies like DSL.”

It’s also important to note a large percentage of community broadband networks are based on fiber optics while commercial wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon are among the few willing to deploy 5G and incumbent telephone companies show only limited interest in G.fast.

And again, Yoo should take a bit of his own advice on picking or discouraging technology or municipal broadband provider winners and losers:

“At this point, it is impossible to foresee which architecture will ultimately represent the best approach. When it is impossible to tell whether a practice would promote or hinder competition, the accepted policy response is to permit the practice to go forward until actual harm to consumers can be proven. This restraint provides the room for experimentation upon which normal competitive processes depend. It also shows appropriate humility about our ability to predict the technological future.”

Red Flag #6: Innovation is in the eye of the beholder. (Subject to change on a whim).

Yoo also distorts a 2014 New York Times article by focusing on the lack of applications available to take advantage of gigabit speeds. But he ignores the fact that customers and entrepreneurs are delighted that speed is available, and offers the potential of significant innovation including very high quality video and enough bandwidth to power the explosion of connected devices in the home. Every major ISP in the country reports consumers are upgrading to faster internet packages, and some customers remain dissatisfied those speeds are still not fast enough.

Again, Yoo is suspiciously inconsistent. When major ISPs sought permission to develop faster traffic lanes for brand new services, Yoo was one of the biggest supporters of the innovation opportunities of that concept:

He hopes that the FCC’s easing restrictions on broadband providers’ ability to charge different prices for delivering different Internet content could spur innovation by allowing both established companies and startups to offer new online services tailored for the Internet “fast lane” delivery. For instance, Yoo pointed to the differentiation between standard U.S. first class postal service with overnight FedEx mail and noted how new businesses have grown around the overnight delivery option.

Apparently the distinction is that companies like Comcast have to be the mail carrier for that to be any good. If a community does it, that means it is unwanted, unnecessary, and bad.

We could go on and on, but we assume most readers get the point. Fixing facts around a narrative has been a part of the telecom industry’s cynical lobbying for decades. Let’s face facts. Yoo’s donors don’t want the competition and don’t want to be forced to invest in upgrades they should have completed long ago. Yoo’s report is part of the campaign to stop municipal broadband before it gets off the ground.

Where did we learn this? From Yoo himself, who wrote the best way to improve broadband is remove barriers that keep new providers, including municipal ones if he wants to be consistent, from launching service:

“Competition policy thus teaches us that any vertical chain of production will only be as efficient as its least competitive link. The proper focus of broadband policy is to identify the level of production that is the most concentrated and the most protected by entry barriers and to try to make it more competitive.”

“Furthermore, large, established players have more resources and experience with which to influence the regulatory process.”

Those are two things we can agree on.

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