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Wisc. Senator Wants Paid Internet Fast Lanes; FCC Chairman Wants Focus on Investment

Johnson

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is in favor of banishing Net Neutrality and allowing service providers to sell paid broadband fast lanes, claiming some uses of the internet are more important than others.

Speaking alongside FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on a live interview with WTMJ Radio in Milwaukee with no guests in opposition, Johnson claimed unless cable and telephone companies are given additional economic incentives to risk capital, broadband service improvements will be slow in coming.

Johnson added ISPs should be allowed to adopt paid prioritization.

“You might need a fast lane within that pipeline so that [medical] diagnoses can be transmitted instantaneously [and] not [be] held up by maybe a movie streaming,” Johnson said.

“I want everyone to have what I call digital opportunity, and to do that you need to have a regulatory framework that gives all of these companies — satellite, wireless, fiber — a strong incentive to invest,” added Pai.

“As a businessperson, you need the economic incentive to risk your capital and the minute you have government regulation it reduces the certainty in terms of what you can get from return on investment, you are going to invest less,” argued Johnson. “We’re seeing that right now because of what [former FCC] Chairman Wheeler did.”

Pai

Pai argued that outdated FCC rules were also responsible for reducing broadband investment, particularly rules that require phone companies to continue maintaining their existing wireline network to provide universal access to telephone service.

Pai characterized Net Neutrality as government control of the internet.

“Do you want the government deciding how the internet is run?” Pai said, noting he favors “light touch” regulation where private companies manage their own businesses with targeted enforcement action by the FCC. “In 2015, on a party line vote, the FCC went the other way and put the government, rather than the private sector, at the center of how the internet operates.”

By getting rid of the Obama Administration’s Net Neutrality policies, Pai believes that will return the U.S. to an era of where cable and phone companies invest in their networks and expand rural broadband.

“As Chairman Pai said, Net Neutrality is a slogan,” added Johnson. “What you really want is an expansion of high-speed broadband. In order to do that, you have to create the incentives for those smaller ISPs to invest and if they don’t really control their own fiber — if the government tells them exactly how they are going to use their investment — there is less incentive for them to invest so we’ll have less high-speed broadband.”

“Consumers will be worse off because of this term Net Neutrality,” Johnson said.

“We at the FCC need to be focused on investment in infrastructure,” Pai said, not Net Neutrality.

YouTube TV An Epic Fail Before It Even Launches: Bad Value, Ad-Littered DVR

Google’s forthcoming online TV streaming service will cost too much for too little and includes a cloud-based DVR that will replace many of your recordings with unskippable-ad-laced alternatives.

YouTube TV was previewed for reporters Tuesday, despite the fact it won’t debut until late spring or early summer, with a lineup of 40 channels for $35 a month. The “skinny bundle” from Google has managed to put together a very incomplete lineup of major cable networks and for most of the country, on-demand-only access of network shows about a day after they air.

YouTube TV Tentative Lineup

  • Disney: ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN31, ESPNU, ESPNews, SEC Network, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Freeform
  • NBCUniversal: NBC, Telemundo, Bravo, Chiller, CNBC, E!, Golf Channel, MSNBC, NBC Universo2, NBCSN, Oxygen, Sprout, SyFy, Universal HD, USA. In some regions: Comcast Regional Sports Networks, NECN (New England Cable News)
  • CBS: CBS, The CW, CBS Sports Network
  • Fox: FOX, FS1 (Fox Sports 1), FS2 (Fox Sports 2), BTN (Big Ten Network), FX, FXX, FXM, Nat Geo, Nat Geo Wild, Fox News, Fox Business. In some regions: Fox Regional Sports Networks
  • The Weather Channel: Local Now (rolling weather forecasts)
  • YouTube TV members can also add Showtime for $11 a month and Fox Soccer Plus for $15 a month.
  • Availability of local TV/live network streaming limited to residents of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Prospective customers will have to tough it out with no access to AMC, HBO, MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, MTV/VH1, CNN, Cartoon Network, Discovery, TBS, TNT, PBS, Food Network, and HGTV among many other missing networks.

One potentially interesting feature – an unlimited cloud-based DVR service, is rendered almost unusable with the imposition of prioritized video-on-demand. In short, this means that once a video-on-demand version of the show you recorded on your DVR becomes available, you can no longer access your recording. Your only option is to watch the ad-heavy, on-demand version with advertising you cannot skip. In most cases, that will give customers about 12-24 hours to watch their DVR recordings before they become inaccessible, at least until the on-demand version is removed.

Wojcicki

That’s a challenging proposition when consumers have other choices including AT&T’s DirecTV Now, Sling TV, and PlayStation Vue. The premise of YouTube TV, like many others, is to appeal to cord cutters and cable-nevers — especially millennials.

“There’s no question millennials love great TV content,” said YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki. “But what we’ve seen is they don’t want to watch it in the traditional setting.”

What Wojcicki ignores is the fact millennials prefer to watch their shows on-demand. Relying on live television as the primary source of scripted television shows is already inconvenient and unnecessary. The viewing experience is increasingly an individual one, catering to the whims of a single viewer watching on a tablet, smartphone, or connected TV. Of all the websites on the internet, YouTube should already understand the trend towards individualized viewing better than most.

Just as important, YouTube TV is a lousy deal. Hulu subscribers can binge watch all the series they want with no ads for $11.99 a month. YouTube TV will charge nearly three times the price and force customers to sit through up to 18 minutes of ads an hour. Hulu doesn’t require customers to use Google’s Chromecast as the only stream-to-TV option either. A premium YouTube Red subscription also won’t get you a better deal or fewer ads. You may already pay to watch YouTube commercial free but now you will pay more to watch YouTube TV filled with ads.

Analyst Michael Nathanson said Google’s real goal here is to get into the television advertising market. Because customers will be held captive by a disabled fast-forward button, they will see Google-targeted ads playing in ad slots normally reserved for use by local cable operators. Getting a lot of people to watch those ads means YouTube TV will at least be generous about something. A subscription will include access for six accounts with separate login information, but only three users can watch simultaneously, if they bother.

Opponent of EPB Fiber Expansion: Get ‘Innovative’ Satellite Internet Instead

Cleveland's monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

Cleveland’s monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

AT&T, Comcast, and Charter have surrounded the city of Cleveland, Tenn., (population 42,774) for more than 20 years, yet after all that time, there are still many homes in the area that have no better than dial-up Internet access..

An effort to extend municipal utility EPB’s fiber to the home service into the community just northeast of Chattanooga on Interstate 75, has run into organized political opposition campaign, part-sponsored by two of the three communications companies serving the area.

Tennessee state Reps. Dan Howell and Kevin Brooks, both Cleveland-area Republicans, understand the implications. With AT&T, Comcast, and Charter resolute about not expanding their coverage areas anytime soon, the only chance Cleveland has of winning world-class broadband anytime in the reasonable future is through EPB, which has already offered to extend service to at least 1,000 customers in rural Bradley County in as little as three months. Most of those customers now rely on dial-up Internet services, because no broadband is available. Reps. Howell and Brooks are trying to get the the red tape out of the way so EPB can proceed, but the Tennessee legislature hasn’t budged.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

There is a substantial difference between 30kbps dial-up and 100Mbps — one of the “budget” Internet tiers available from EPB. But some Tennessee lawmakers and corporate-backed special interest groups don’t care. To them, stopping public broadband expansion is a bigger priority, and they have attempted to stall, block, or prohibit municipal broadband, just to protect the current phone and cable companies that are among their generous contributors.

In 2010, Chattanooga became the first in America to enjoy gigabit residential broadband speed not because of AT&T, Comcast, or Charter, but because of the publicly owned electric company, EPB. So what’s the problem with that? The fact EPB spent $320 million on the fiber optic network — about $100 million of that coming from a federal grant — keeps some conservatives, corporate executives, and telecom shareholders up at night. They object to the public funding of broadband, calling it unfair competition for the two incumbent cable companies and one phone company, which have their own “privately funded” networks.

Republican Rep. Mike Carter, who serves Ooltewah, thinks that’s a lot of nonsense. He notes AT&T and other providers already receive government funding to service outlying areas that no other providers dare to tread for a lack of return on their investment.

cleveland_tn“[What] convinces me to back expansion of the EPB of Chattanooga is the fact that they received $111 million in stimulus funds, and in the next five years AT&T alone will receive $156 million of your money [in government funding] assessed every month on your bill to provide 10/4-gigabit service in those areas,” Carter explained to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. “If the EPB’s $111 million matching grant somehow disqualifies those benefits going to my constituents, how do I explain to them that AT&T is receiving non-matching funds?”

“The issue then became, if it is necessary to create the world’s fastest Internet system, why would EPB not offer that for economic growth in its service area?” Carter continued. ” After I heard the story of the [gig’s] creation and realized that the money had already been spent, I asked myself if I would allow a firmly held principle of no competition with private enterprise by government to deny my constituents and neighbors the incredible benefits.”

Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, is dismissive of Carter’s willingness to bend his principles. In his view, those without Internet access have other options instead of getting EPB Fiber on the public dime.

Owen

Owen

“You can get satellite Internet,” said Owen, who added that governments that invest in fiber technology could be “left behind by disruptive innovation,” which in his mind could be satellite Internet. Satellite customers would disagree.

“Horrible, horrible, horrible, and more horrible,” wrote Trey from another Cleveland — this time in Texas. “Speeds are consistently less than 2Mbps and they advertise up to 12. Try a cell phone booster and use that before resorting to satellite Internet.”

Hundreds of customers shared similar stories about their experience with satellite Internet, and they don’t believe it will be disruptive to anything except their bank account.

Owen and his group have not revealed many details about where its funding comes from, but the group is a member of the State Policy Network, which receives financial support from AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Comcast. The group’s former leader, Drew Johnson, was also a former opinion page columnist at the Times-Free Press and used column space to criticize EPB and other issues that ran contrary to AT&T’s agenda in Tennessee.

Despite support from the Chattanooga area’s Republican delegation, many legislators from outside the area remain firmly in support of the telecom companies and their wish to limit or destroy community broadband projects like EPB, claiming they are redundant or are based on faulty business plans likely to fail. But while Comcast used to dismiss EPB’s gigabit service as unnecessary and AT&T considered gigabit speeds overkill, both companies are now racing to deploy their own gigabit networks in Chattanooga to compete.

The residents of Cleveland without broadband today probably won’t have it tomorrow or anytime soon. Many are hoping the Tennessee legislature will relent and let EPB solve their broadband issues once and for all. Cleveland resident Aaron Alldaffer is trying to help gin up interest in a renewed legislative push for EPB Fiber expansion with a Change.org petition.

The BBC World Service Global Business program visited Chattanooga in May 2016 to explore EPB Fiber and discuss its implications. (29 minutes)

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FairPoint’s ‘Moosepoop’: Abdicating Its Responsibilities One Customer at a Time

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint's deregulation logic "moosepoop."

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint’s deregulation logic “moosepoop.”

In 2007, Verizon Communications announced it was selling its landline telephone network in Northern New England to FairPoint Communications, a North Carolina-based independent telephone company. Now, nearly a decade (and one bankruptcy) later, FairPoint wants to back out of its commitments.

In 2015, FairPoint stepped up its push for deregulation, writing its own draft legislative bills that would gradually end its obligation to serve as a “carrier of last resort,” which guarantees phone service to any customer that wants it.

The company’s lobbyists produced the self-written LD 1302, introduced last year in Maine with the ironic name: “An Act To Increase Competition and Ensure a Robust Information and Telecommunications Market.” The bill is a gift to FairPoint, allowing it to abdicate responsibilities telephone companies have adhered to for over 100 years:

  • The bill removes the requirement that FairPoint maintain uninterrupted voice service during a power failure, either through battery backup or electric current;
  • Guarantees FairPoint not be required to offer provider of last resort service without its express consent, eliminating Universal Service requirements;
  • Eliminates a requirement FairPoint offer service in any area where another provider also claims coverage of at least 94% of households;
  • Eventually forbids the Public Utilities Commission from requiring contributions to the state Universal Service Fund and forbids the PUC from spending that money to subsidize rural telephone rates.

opinionSuch legislation strips consumers of any assumption they can get affordable, high quality landline service and would allow FairPoint to mothball significant segments of its network (and the customers that depend on it), telling the disconnected to use a cell phone provider instead.

FairPoint claims this is necessary to establish a more level playing ground to compete with other telecom service providers that do not have legacy obligations to fulfill. But that attitude represents “race to the bottom” thinking from a company that fully understood the implications of buying Verizon’s landline networks in a region where some customers were already dropping basic service in favor of their cell phones.

FairPoint apparently still saw value spending $2.4 billion on a network it now seems ready to partly abandon or dismantle. We suspect the “value” FairPoint saw was a comfortable duopoly in urban areas, a monopoly in most rural ones. When it botched the conversion from Verizon to itself, customers fled to the competition, dimming its prospects. The company soon declared bankruptcy reorganization, emerged from it, and is now seeking a legislative/regulatory bailout too. Regulators should say no.

fairpointLast week, even FairPoint’s CEO Paul Sunu appeared to undercut his company’s own arguments for the need of such legislation, just as the company renewed its efforts in Portland to get a new 2016 version of the deregulation bill through the Maine legislature.

“We’ve operated in and we have experience operating basically in duopolies for a long time,” Sunu told investors in last week’s quarterly results conference call. “Cable is a formidable competitor. Look, they offer a nice package and a bundle and they – in certain areas, they certainly have a speed advantage. So we recognize that and so our marketing team does a really good job of making sure that our packages are competitive and we can counter punch on a both aggregate and deconstructive pricing.”

“Our aim is not to be a low cost, per se,” Sununu added. “What we want to do is to make sure that people stay with us because we can provide a better service and a better experience and that’s really what we aim to do. And as a result, we think that we will be able to change the perception that people have of Fairpoint and our brand and be able to keep our customers with us longer.”

Paul H. Sunu

Paul H. Sunu

Of course customers may not have the option to stay if FairPoint gets its deregulation agenda through and are later left unilaterally disconnected. In fact, while Sunu argues FairPoint’s biggest marketing plus is that it can provide better service, its agenda seems to represent the opposite. AARP representatives argued seniors want and need reliable and affordable landline service. FairPoint’s proposal would eliminate assurances that such phone lines will still be there and work even when the power goes out.

At least this year, customers know if they are being targeted. FairPoint is proposing to immediately remove from “provider of last resort service” coverage in Maine from Bangor, Lewiston, Portland, South Portland, Auburn, Biddeford, Sanford, Brunswick, Scarborough, Saco, Augusta, Westbrook, Windham, Gorham, Waterville, Kennebunk, Standish, Kittery, Brewer, Cape Elizabeth, Old Orchard Beach, Yarmouth, Bath, Freeport and Belfast.

At least 10,000 customers could be affected almost immediately if the bill passes. Customers in those areas would not lose service under the plan, but prices would no longer be set by state regulators and the company could deny new connection requests.

FairPoint argues that customers disappointed by the effects of deregulation can simply switch providers.

fairpoint failure“The market determines the service quality criteria of importance to customers and the service quality levels they find acceptable,” Sarah Davis, the company’s senior director of government affairs, wrote. “To the extent service quality is deficient from the perspective of consumers, the competitive marketplace imposes its own serious penalties.”

Except FairPoint’s own CEO recognizes that marketplace is usually a duopoly, limiting customer options and the penalties to FairPoint.

Those customers still allowed to stay customers may or may not get good service from FairPoint. Another company proposal would make it hard to measure reliability by limiting the authority of state regulators to track and oversee service complaints.

Company critic and customer Mike Kiernan calls FairPoint’s legislative push “moosepoop.”

“FairPoint has been, from the outset, well aware of the issues here in New England, since they had to demonstrate that they were capable of coping with the conditions – market and otherwise – in their takeover bid from Verizon,” Kiernan writes. “Yet now we see where they are crying poverty (a poverty that they brought on themselves) by taking on the state concession that they are trying desperately to get out from under, and as soon as possible.”

Vermont Public Radio reports FairPoint wants to get rid of service quality obligations it has consistently failed to meet as part of a broad push for deregulation. (2:23)

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Kiernan argues FairPoint should be replaced with a solution New Englanders have been familiar with for over 200 years – a public co-op. He points to Eastern Maine Electrical Co-Op as an example of a publicly owned utility that works for its customers, not as a “corporate cheerleader.”

Despite lobbying efforts that suggest FairPoint is unnecessarily burdened by the requirements it inherited when it bought Verizon’s operations, FairPoint reported a net profit of $90 million dollars in fiscal 2015.

Arizona Voters Put Cable Lobbyist in Charge of Telecom Oversight Agency; Scandal Ensues

Susan Bitter Smith

Susan Bitter Smith

To say Susan Bitter Smith is beholden to Arizona’s cable industry would be an understatement.

In addition to purportedly representing the citizens of Arizona on regulated utility matters, Bitter Smith is one of the state’s most powerful cable industry lobbyists, earning a salary that consumes 40 percent of the annual budget of the Southwest Cable Communications Association, which represents most cable operators in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Despite clear ties to the telecommunications industry Bitter Smith has no intention of ending, in 2012 she ran for the chair of the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) — the state body that oversees and regulates phone, cable, and power utilities. Unlike many other states that appoint commissioners, Arizona voters elect them to office. Giving voters a direct election is written into the state constitution, and was designed to limit potential corporate influence and favoritism. Unfortunately for voters, the 2012 election cycle preoccupied by a presidential race and a rare open Senate seat left the mainstream media little time or interest exploring the backgrounds of candidates for the telecom regulator.

Bitter Smith never exactly hid her business relationship with Arizona’s largest cable companies, notably Cox Communications, the cable operator that dominates Phoenix. But she routinely downplayed the obvious conflict of interest, claiming the ACC dealt with regulated utilities, and cable companies were mostly deregulated. The Arizona Republic offered few insights into Bitter Smith’s background, failing to disclose her lobbying connections in their voter recommendations. Instead, the newspaper wrote a single sentence about Bitter Smith’s campaign in its editorial endorsements for the 2012 election: “Bitter Smith enjoys a great reputation as a strong-willed partisan, which seems a difficult fit for the Corporation Commission, at least as compared with the competition.”

bitter smith campaignPartisanship was exactly what a lot of voters apparently wanted, however, because the vote swung decidedly Republican in large parts of Arizona in the 2012 election. The turnout in Maricopa County, the largest in Arizona, was strongly anti-Obama and voters seemed content voting the party line down the ballot. Incumbents like Democrat Paul Newman did not exactly win an endorsement from the Republic either. The newspaper called him a “fierce and provocative partisan.”

“It is difficult to fathom work getting done at the commission with a microphone anywhere within Newman’s reach,” the newspaper added. The other Democratic incumbent, Susan Kennedy, was dismissed as an on-the-job trainee by the newspaper.

Broadband Issues Overshadowed by Arizona’s Solar Energy Debate

For most in Arizona, the 2012 election at the ACC was much more about energy issues than high cable bills and dreadful broadband. That year, investment in solar energy was the hot topic and it made the election of business-friendly candidates a high priority for the existing power-generating utilities and their friends at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Both could claim a major victory if a state ready-made for solar renewable energy turned its back for the sake of incumbent fossil fuel power generators.

alec-logo-smBitter Smith was never a member of ALEC, not having been a state legislator, but many of her fellow Republicans serving on the ACC were, and some were not shy claiming the Obama Administration’s pro-solar energy policies were “reckless and dangerous.” ALEC and utility companies oppose requirements that mandate the purchase of excess power generated from solar and wind customers at market rates and also want to introduce surcharges for customers relying on solar energy. Their fear: if a large percentage of sun-rich Arizonans installed solar panels, revenue for the investor-owned utilities could plummet.

Against that backdrop, Bitter Smith’s close relationship with Cox Cable went unnoticed while the media focused their attention on incumbent Republican commissioner Bob Stump – dubbed by some “Trash Burner Bob” for successfully pushing approval of a permit for a 13 megawatt trash burning plant in West Phoenix. Despite a reputation for pollution, Stump sold trash burning as a better renewable energy source for Arizona than solar energy. Waste hauling companies were delighted. The campaign met with less opposition than some expected, in part because anonymous voting guides turned up conflating solar panels as fire hazards that were difficult to extinguish, exposed users to dangerous chemicals, and constituted a hazard to firefighters whose ‘neurons may be blocked‘ when they approached solar panel fires, allegedly caused by electricity inside the panel.

Trash Burning Bob Stump

“Trash Burner Bob” Stump

Newcomer Robert Burns also won his election to the ACC that same year. His time at the Commission has also been rocky. This year, he faces an ethics complaint for remaining a registered lobbyist with the Arizona Telecommunications and Information Council, a group funded by the state’s largest telecom companies. After the complaint was filed, Burns claimed it was all a mistake. He later asked the group’s attorney to send a letter to the Arizona Secretary of State’s office requesting his lobbying connection be removed.

Some critics of the Commission have tolerated Burns’ alleged ethical lapse because he has demonstrated some independence from the energy companies he helps oversee.

Burns has argued the Arizona Public Service Company (APS) – a large investor-owned utility – must disclose how much it spent in campaign contributions and lobbying efforts to get its preferred candidates elected to the Corporation Commission. His demand for disclosure comes at the same time his fellow commissioner Stump is being investigated for exchanging text messages with APS officials during the 2014 election. Critics suggest he may have been illegally coordinating the campaigns of two of his closest allies — Tommy Forese and Doug Little. Both won seats on the ACC that year and have maintained a strong alliance with Stump, much to the chagrin of good government bloggers, who frequently refer to all three collectively as “Tommy Little Stump.”

Steve Muratore, editor of the Arizona Eagletarian, calls all three “shameless,” as they tirelessly fight to stop any investigation that could force open APS’ books to reveal what money, if any, was spent to help get both into office.

Utility giant APS will approach the Arizona Corporation Commission to win a 400% rate hike on special fees for solar panel users.

Utility giant APS will approach the Arizona Corporation Commission to win a 400% rate hike on special fees for solar panel users.

Forese claims the regulator has no business examining APS’ books.

“Commissioners attempting to influence elections in their official capacity through this relationship [as a result of their constitutional authority] would exceed the bounds of their constitutional mandate over public service corporations,” Forese argues.

While the political soap operas play out, in 2013, APA delivered its first Commission-approved blow against solar power, winning permission to apply a surcharge averaging $5 a month for using solar panels to generate electricity. APC successfully argued solar customers cheat other utility ratepayers by not contributing enough to the utility’s fixed costs.

This year, APC is seeking a 400%+ rate increase, proposing a surcharge averaging $21 a month for using solar panels. Customers served by the Salt River Project in Tempe faced even more onerous charges from that utility — a $50 a month fee for using solar panels. The new fees have effectively stopped residential solar power expansion in that utility’s territory, with the approval of ACC commissioners.

Flying Under the Radar

In the context of these other controversies, Bitter Smith’s own apparent conflicts of interest have largely flown under the radar from 2012 until earlier this year. Federal cable deregulation laws limit the Arizona regulator’s oversight of cable companies like Cox, Cable One, and Comcast. That has given Bitter Smith a defense for serving as both a lobbyist and a regulator. Corporation-Commission-signShe claims she only lobbies for the cable television and broadband services sold by cable companies like Cox Communications and abstains from consideration of cases such as those involving Cox’s digital phone service, which is still subject to some regulatory scrutiny. Bitter Smith also claims it is easy to tell where the ethical line falls because companies like Cox run different aspects of its business under a variety of affiliated subsidiaries.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich was not impressed with that explanation and last week filed a Petition for Special Action to remove Bitter Smith from office for violating the state’s conflict of interest statute.

“Arizonans deserve fair and impartial regulators,” said Brnovich. “We filed this case to protect the integrity of the Commission and to restore the faith of Arizona voters in the electoral process. Arizona law clearly prohibits a Commissioner from receiving substantial compensation from companies regulated by the Commission.”

On Sept. 2, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) launched an investigation into Bitter Smith after receiving a formal complaint against her. The AGO investigation found Bitter Smith receives over $150,000 per year for her trade association work, on top of her $79,500 salary as a Commissioner.  Arizona State Statute 40-101 prohibits Commissioners from being employed by or holding an official relationship to companies regulated by the Commission. The law also prohibits Commissioners from having a financial interest in regulated companies. Section 40-101 promotes ethics in government and prevents conflicts of interest.

“This isn’t one of these instances where this was maybe somebody skating too close to a line, or maybe somebody that had gone into a grey area. I think the law is very clear on this case,” Brnovich said.

KJZZ in Phoenix began raising questions about Bitter Smith’s apparent conflicts of interest last summer and carried this special report on Aug. 24, 2015. (7:18)

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Bitter Smith’s Shadowy and Scrubbed “PR Firm”

More troubling for Bitter Smith’s case is the “public affairs firm” Technical Solutions, jointly run by Bitter Smith and her husband. A careful scrubbing of the firm’s website “disappeared” the detailed description of the firm’s lobbying services, which counted Bitter Smith’s presence on the Commission a major asset for would-be telecom company clients. Google’s cache resolved that dilemma. Among those taking advantage of Technical Solutions’ services are AT&T, the former wireless company Alltel, and most of the state’s largest cable operators. Bitter Smith also claimed expertise setting up astroturf “grassroots” campaigns advocating her clients’ agendas and interests, but hiding any corporate connection. She also promoted her ability to plant stories with the media for her paying clients.

This was scrubbed off the website

Scrubbed from the website, but retained by Google’s cache.

Reporters at KJZZ, a public radio station in Phoenix, have spent months following the fine line Bitter Smith has laid as a defense against conflict of interest charges.

Oopsy

Bitter Smith depends on cable and phone companies setting up different entities in name only to manage regulated and unregulated services. That means a cable company could approach the Commission under several different names, one for its phone, one for its television, and one for its broadband business. That distinction allows Bitter Smith to claim she is careful about conflicts of interest:

Bitter Smith said that, because the telecom entities are so separate, it’s OK to vote on telecom matters related to Cox, Suddenlink and other members at the commission. But she still tries not to.

“We thought about that, ‘Well, maybe just from the appearance sake it wouldn’t hurt,’” she said.

Since Bitter Smith took office in 2013, records show the commission has voted at least seven times on matters involving the telephone side of the cable association’s members.

She recused herself four of those times, such as last year when a tariff increase was approved for Cox.

But she didn’t recuse herself on three matters, which she said was accidental, including another tariff increase for Cox approved in 2013.

“Probably should have, just didn’t catch it,” she said.“It was on the consent agenda, I zoomed through.”

She also didn’t recuse herself in May from voting to rescind a $225,000-bond requirement for Mercury Voice & Data, an entity identified in public documents as doing business in Arizona as Suddenlink Communications. She said she missed that one accidentally as well.

“Suddenlink is my member, Mercury Voice & Data is not an entity that I’m familiar with,” Bitter Smith said. “If I had understood, I probably would have, you know, just for optics sake. There’s no legal reason I would need to do that but, had I understood that there was another entity that they now form with a new name, separate entity with a new name, I probably would have.”

Real News AZ talked with attorney Thomas Ryan about the ethics of serving as a Corporation Commissioner while also employed as a paid lobbyist working for the interests of the companies regulated by that Commission. (7:08)

Ryan

Ryan

Bitter Smith’s ‘oopsies‘ infuriate government watchdog and Arizona attorney Thomas Ryan, who has tangled with Arizona’s high-powered politicians before… and won.

“This will not go quietly in the night and whoever she retains will no doubt fight it tooth and nail,” Ryan said of Bitter Smith. “But the state of Arizona deserves a Corporation Commission that is not bought and paid for by the very people it’s supposed to regulate, the very industries it’s supposed to regulate.”

Ryan is particularly incensed that Bitter Smith’s apparent ethical lapses are costing Arizonans twice — taxpayers pay her nearly $80,000 salary as a Commissioner and the increasingly expensive cable and phone bills that grow as a result of some of the Commission’s pro-telecom decisions. But at least Bitter Smith is doing well, also collecting her six figure salary from the cable lobbying association she leads.

Pat Quinn, former director of the Residential Utility Consumer Office, or RUCO, which advocates for consumers at the ACC, isn’t moved by Bitter Smith’s fine line and he should know – he’s the former Arizona president of Qwest Communications (today CenturyLink).

Quinn said Bitter Smith’s explanation about the separateness of telecom entities from cable is making a “difference without a distinction.”

“While you may be able to, accounting wise, separate your expenses between what you put in phone and what you put in cable, how do you take out of your mind, ‘Oh, they’re paying me over here and we do good things for them over here, but I’m going to be fair and unbiased when I look at not only Cox on the phone side, but any of the other phone providers,’” Quinn told KJZZ.

How Bitter Smith helped kill rural community broadband in Arizona for the benefit of the state’s biggest cable companies. (6:43)

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Killing Community Broadband to Protect Arizona Cable Profits

The clearest cut evidence of Bitter Smith’s lobbying for Arizona cable companies while claiming to represent the public interest as a commissioner came in 2013, when Bitter Smith and Cox Communications lobbyist Susan Anable tried to pressure Galen Updike, a state employee tasked with mapping broadband availability in Arizona and advocating for solutions for the 80 percent of rural communities in the state that remain broadband-challenged to this day.

In February, Bitter Smith and Anable allegedly solicited the help of state employees to kill a state contract with GovNet, a firm that had previously received $39 million in federal dollars to bring broadband to rural Arizona.

govnet

Updike said Bitter Smith trashed GovNet’s reputation, claiming the provider walked away from earlier projects leaving them incomplete.

“‘There was a better alternative,'” Updike recalls Bitter Smith telling him. “‘You’ve got existing cable companies in the area that are having now to compete against these dollars that come in from the federal government. Can you help us get rid of GovNet’s contract?’ [was the request]. It took my breath away.”

COX_RES_RGBUpdike said Bitter Smith maintained a near-constant presence at their meetings, but she had no interest in solving Arizona’s rural broadband problems.

“The only reason for Bitter Smith to be there was to talk about telecommunications policy, broadband policy,” Updike said.

Updike’s efforts to make things better for broadband in rural Arizona met constant headwinds from Bitter Smith and lobbyists for the state’s cable and phone companies.

“All the broadband providers were cherry picking — going after the high easy places to put broadband into where there’s high concentration of population dollars,” Updike said. “And basically the low population areas, the rural areas of the state of Arizona, are sucking wind. They have no possibility for it.”

bearEfforts to develop the Arizona Strategic Broadband Plan were effectively sabotaged by the cable industry, especially Cox. Bitter Smith immediately objected to the contention the cable industry could collectively offer broadband to 96 percent of the state if it chose. She claimed that was invalid. She also criticized the proposal to begin a comprehensive broadband mapping program claiming it lacked proof it would be any real ongoing benefit to anyone.

At the center of the lobbying effort backed by Cox was an argument the state should not involve itself in expanding broadband networks. Instead, it should spend its funds promoting the broadband service already available from cable operators to those not yet signed up.

Things got much worse for Updike as Republicans cemented their grip on the Corporation Commission in 2013. Updike continued to voice concerns about Bitter Smith’s conflicts of interest and was eventually taken aside and told to be quiet about the issue.

“I was told to stop poking the bear. The bear was the combination of Cox, CenturyLink and Susan Bitter Smith,” Updike told the radio station.

By May 2013, the broadband planning council’s meetings began to be mysteriously canceled. No strategic broadband plan was ever adopted. That same month, Updike was told he no longer had a job at the Arizona Department of Administration.

Henry Goldberg, and independent consultant who helped draft the never-adopted state broadband plan has little to fear from Bitter Smith, so he was frank with KJZZ.

“To me when you stop discussions of the plan, disband this council, which is supposed to advise the governor on digital policy, there’s something inappropriate going on there. Something like this is critical for the citizens of Arizona.”

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