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Shakedown Sharpton: Buy Quid Pro Quo Minority Support for Your Big Telecom Merger Deal

shakedown alLooking for civil rights groups to support your multi-billion dollar telecom merger and keep minority groups off your back?

You couldn’t do better than cutting a check to Rev. Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network (NAN) will generate form letters praising your killer deal before regulators or help garner support in Congress for more deregulation and less Net Neutrality. All it takes is a few donations and consulting fees, according to a special report published by the New York Post.

“Al Sharpton has enriched himself and NAN for years by threatening companies with bad publicity if they didn’t come to terms with him. Put simply, Sharpton specializes in shakedowns,” Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal & Policy Center told the Post.

“Once Sharpton’s on board, he plays the race card all the way through,” said a source who has worked with the Harlem preacher. “He just keeps asking for more and more money.”

Sharpton’s 60th birthday party bash last October at Manhattan’s Four Seasons restaurant departed from the usual friends and family oriented affair most of us would expect, as envelopes arrived from some of America’s largest corporations, including AT&T and Verizon, containing at least $1 million in donations for Sharpton’s civil rights group.

Coincidentally, that same month Sharpton co-signed a letter sent to the FCC urging the regulator to approve AT&T’s deal to buy DirecTV.

“We believe the evidence and the company’s record, as well as future impact and commitments post-merger, provide a clear and compelling basis for the FCC to determine that this merger is in the public’s best interest,” the letter said. “If approved, the combined AT&T-DirecTV will have greater incentive to deploy a state of the art Internet service and give millions of Americans a new way to access the Internet’s economic, social, and civic benefits.”

If approved, the deal would also eliminate one of AT&T’s chief competitors for pay television customers, making DirecTV part of the AT&T family.

Money-Stuffed-Into-PocketWhile the money keeps rolling in, Sharpton has left taxpayers footing his bills. Sharpton himself, his nonprofit NAN, and two for-profit firms controlled by him have racked up $4.7 million in outstanding debt and tax obligations according to federal and New York State records. He owes New York taxpayers $806,875 and after not bothering to pay his personal income taxes in full, he owes $2.6 million in federal liens. Sharpton’s NAN still owes more than $800,000 to the federal government and his two for-profit ventures separately owe New Yorkers nearly $450,000.

Raising money to repay debts appears to be a major priority for Sharpton these days, and companies like Comcast covet his support of their corporate agendas.

Shortly after Comcast announced its intention to acquire NBC-Universal in late 2009, Comcast’s chief executive, Brian L. Roberts, and the head of the company’s lobbying effort, David L. Cohen, met with Sharpton and other representatives of minority groups to talk about their bid. Comcast recognized that support from minority groups would be crucial to answering the inevitable charge that giant media mergers have a tendency to reduce diversity in programming, particularly from and for minorities.

Comcast turned on its money spigot, donating at least $140,000 to Sharpton’s National Action Network. In turn, Sharpton took a sudden interest in the merger, penning letters of strong support to the FCC. Between 2008 and 2010, Comcast’s corporate foundation donated more than $3 million to 39 minority groups that wrote letters to federal regulators in support of the NBC deal. Comcast and NBC Universal also worked out an agreement with advocacy groups guaranteeing increased “minority participation in news and public affairs programming”—so long as the deal went through.

Comcast supporter turned Comcast-owned MSNBC host.

Sharpton: Comcast supporter turned Comcast-owned MSNBC host.

Few expected that Sharpton himself would be a direct beneficiary of Comcast’s gratitude after the merger was approved. Sharpton was suddenly hired (for an undisclosed amount) as host of his own MSNBC weeknight show, still on the network today.

The New York Times noticed.

“Rarely, if ever, has a cable news channel employed a host who has previously campaigned for the business goals of the channel’s parent company,” the newspaper wrote.

Since the cable company began cutting checks to the NAN, Sharpton has towed the line on Comcast’s public policy agenda.

Last July, Sharpton’s group joined several other civil rights groups (most, if not all financially supported by Comcast) complaining that enforcing Net Neutrality would “harm communities of color.”

“The groups wrote to the FCC to tell them that ‘we do not believe that the door to Title II should be opened,'” said Lee Fang in a piece that was quickly censored by a Comcast-owned news outlet. “Simply put, these groups, many of which claim to carry the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr., are saying that Comcast and Verizon should be able to create Internet slow lanes and fast lanes, and such a change would magically improve the lives of non-white Americans.”

“Just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s children have embarrassingly descended into fighting bitterly over what’s left of his estate, the civil rights groups formed to advance Dr. King’s legacy seem willing to sell out their own members for a buck,” Fang concluded.

AT&T to Federal Trade Commission: Our Speed Throttling is None of Your Business

Image courtesy: cobalt123AT&T has asked a federal judge in California to throw out a lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission over wireless speed throttling, claiming the federal regulator has no authority over how AT&T manages its network.

The FTC filed a lawsuit in October 2014 alleging AT&T was throttling the speeds of its grandfathered “unlimited data” customers by as much as 90 percent and failed to sufficiently disclose the practice in violation of the FTC Act.

Although AT&T discloses its network management policies in broad terms deep within its website, the original complaint charges AT&T failed to directly notify customers identified as the ‘heavy unlimited users’ targeted for wireless speed reductions reportedly as low as 56kbps for up to 30 days or more.

AT&T’s lawyers claim the FTC has no jurisdiction to file the lawsuit because a portion of AT&T’s business — cellular voice service — is defined by the Communications Act as a regulated common carrier service by the Federal Communications Commission. The FTC had argued AT&T’s mobile data services are unregulated and do not fall under the FCC’s exclusive jurisdiction.

AT&T’s attorneys argue two apparently contradictory assertions about wireless regulation that both require the court, in AT&T’s view, to dismiss the FTC’s case:

  1. AT&T acknowledges that its mobile data services are not subject to Title II regulatory oversight by the FCC as a common carrier service. Therefore, federal agencies like the FTC have no jurisdiction to interfere in AT&T’s private business decisions on issues like data caps and speed throttling because it is an unregulated service;
  2. AT&T claims the FCC has asserted sweeping authority over wireless services under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Therefore it should be up to the FCC alone (and not the FTC) to decide the fairness of AT&T’s network management practices. But AT&T doesn’t remind the court this is the same authority that large telecom companies sued into impotence by successfully arguing the FCC exceeded its mandate attempting to assert jurisdiction on data services to enforce concepts such as Net Neutrality and attempting to fine Comcast for throttling peer-to-peer network traffic.

ftcAT&T calls the FTC’s claims it can intervene in services not regulated by the FCC “irrelevant,” arguing once one of AT&T’s services is subject to the FCC’s common carrier regulation, all of its services become untouchable by the FTC.

“The FTC lacks jurisdiction to prosecute this action because AT&T is a common carrier subject to the Communications Act and therefore outside the FTC’s authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act. 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(2),” argues AT&T. “Indeed, the FTC itself has recognized that, as drafted, the exemption altogether removes common carriers such as AT&T from its jurisdiction and has asked Congress to modify the statute. So far, Congress has refused.”

“But whether AT&T’s network management program is ‘unfair’ and whether its disclosures were ‘inadequate’ are issues for the FCC to decide, and in fact the FCC is in the process of so deciding, just as Congress intended,” AT&T said. “Congress drafted Section 5 to avoid subjecting common carriers like AT&T to precisely this sort of conflicting authority of separate federal agencies over the same conduct.”

Should the FCC find AT&T in violation of its transparency rules, AT&T will have a strong legal case to have that ruling tossed as well on the grounds the agency has no mandate from Congress to regulate mobile data services under Section 706/Title III of the Communications Act — the same case other telecom companies have successfully argued in the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Ironically, AT&T’s apparent regulatory loophole will vanish should the FCC order that broadband services of all kinds be reclassified as Title II telecommunications services as part of the ongoing effort to implement strong Net Neutrality policies.

AT&T, Verizon Break Out The Campaign Contribution Checkbooks Early, Sending $ to the Newly-Elected

Big Telecom is already trying to buy incoming members of Congress with lavish campaign contributions.

Big Telecom is already trying to buy incoming members of Congress with lavish campaign contributions.

Before constituents have a chance to make an impression on Capitol Hill’s incoming freshmen class, AT&T and Verizon have rushed significant campaign contributions to more than two dozen newly elected members of Congress.

Politico reports AT&T has cut checks to 31 new members of the House and Senate, Verizon sent 28 checks, and Comcast donated to 22 winners in the fall elections. Most of the money went to incoming Republicans who will control both the House and Senate starting in January.

All three companies are seeking allies in the fight against Net Neutrality and for a wholesale rewriting of the Communications Act, the nation’s most important telecom-related legislation.

Congressional observers predict revisiting the Communications Act would be a lobbyist bonanza, with potentially billions flowing into congressional coffers to win further industry deregulation. The last major overhaul in 1996 transformed broadcasting, allowing a handful of corporations to own the majority of radio and television stations and allowing large phone and cable companies to govern themselves with respect to broadband and competition. Cable and broadband prices soared as a result, while the number of competitors dropped due to industry consolidation.

The telecom companies are well ahead of technology players like Microsoft and Google, that have collectively sent contributions to fewer than a half-dozen incoming members and are barely active in Washington in comparison to the biggest phone and cable companies.

AT&T Sneaks Telecom Deregulation Amendment into Ohio’s Agriculture/Water Quality Bill

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is threatening to veto the state's Agriculture Bill if it reaches his desk with telecom deregulation inserted as an amendment.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is threatening to veto the state’s Agriculture Bill if it reaches his desk with telecom deregulation inserted as an amendment.

AT&T’s lobbyists in Ohio have convinced state legislators to ignore a veto threat from the governor’s office and insert a deregulation amendment into an unrelated water quality and agriculture measure.

Retiring House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R-Medina) is shepherding AT&T’s latest attempt at total deregulation through the Ohio House of Representatives, claiming it will break down barriers for businesses in Ohio and give new businesses the infrastructure they need to make Ohio their home. Among Batchelder’s top donors is AT&T.

Critics contend the measure will disconnect up to 5% of rural Ohio from all telephone service because they live in “no signal bar” areas of the state.

The amendment, inserted into HB490 (at Sec. 4905.71), would end AT&T’s requirement to serve as a Provider of Last Resort, which has guaranteed that every Ohio resident seeking telephone service has had it for nearly 100 years. If the measure passes, AT&T can unilaterally disconnect service and leave unprofitable service areas, mostly in rural and poor sections of the state. Current Ohio law only permits a telephone company to end service if it can prove financial hardship and show that reasonable alternatives are available to affected residents. AT&T earned $128.75 billion in revenue in 2013 and is unlikely to meet any hardship test.

Although AT&T is unlikely to stop service in suburban and urban areas, ratepayers across the state would lose oversight protections from lengthy service outages, unreasonable billing standards and credit requirements, the ability to quickly connect or disconnect service and access to important low-income programs like Lifeline. Rural customers could be forced away from traditional landline and DSL service in favor of AT&T’s wireless network, which costs considerably more.

Current AT&T customers in Ohio can subscribe to landline service for around $20 a month in rural areas and broadband DSL for as little as $15 per month. AT&T’s wireless alternative costs $20 a month for voice service and at least $60 a month for wireless broadband (with a usage cap of 10GB per month and an overlimit fee of $10 per gigabyte). An average landline customer consuming 20GB of data would pay $35 a month for both voice and data services. The same customer using AT&T’s wireless voice and data alternative would pay $180 a month, mostly in overlimit penalties.

AT&T’s lobbying has riled Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, who has threatened to veto any agriculture bill that reaches his desk with telephone deregulation attached.

att_logo“The telecommunications language will force the governor to veto this bill, as he has personally said and has also been repeated several times by other members of the administration,” Jim Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources told the Ohio Senate’s Agriculture Committee during an informal hearing on the legislation. “We would be sacrificing all the great work done so far on this bill if these provisions are not removed.”

The AARP is concerned the measure will not only hurt rural Ohio, but elderly and poor residents who cannot afford wireless service.

“They will only have wireless telephone service with no price controls or guarantees for low-income Ohioans in these areas,” AARP Ohio wrote in a released statement about the proposal. “Additionally, there are areas of Ohio where wireless service is minimal, and to provide the speed needed for those receiving tele-health services in those areas will be even more expensive.”

Interested Ohio residents can share their feelings with their state legislators and the governor’s office.

  • Locate your Ohio House Representative: http://www.ohiohouse.gov/ or call 1-800-282-0253 and ask to be connected to your local representative.
  • Governor John Kasich’s Office Phone: (614) 466-3555

Fiber Games: AT&T (Slightly) Backtracks on Fiber Suspension After Embarrassed by FCC

HissyfitwatchAT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s public hissy fit against the Obama Administration’s sudden backbone on Net Neutrality may complicate AT&T’s plans to win approval of its merger with DirecTV. forcing AT&T to retract threats to suspend fiber buildouts if the administration moves forward with its efforts to ban Internet fast lanes.

Hours after Stephenson told investors AT&T wouldn’t continue with plans to bring U-verse with GigaPower fiber broadband to more cities as long as Net Neutrality was on the agenda, the FCC requested clarification about exactly what AT&T and its CEO was planning. More importantly, it noted responses would become part of the record in its consideration of AT&T’s proposed acquisition of the satellite television provider. The regulator could not send a clearer message that Stephenson’s statements could affect the company’s $48.5 billion merger deal.

AT&T responded – four days after the FCC’s deadline – in a three-page letter with a heavily redacted attachment that basically told the Commission it misunderstood AT&T’s true intentions:

The premise of the Commission’s November 14 Letter is incorrect. AT&T is not limiting our FTTP deployment to 2 million homes. To the contrary, AT&T still plans to complete the major initiative we announced in April to expand our ultra-fast GigaPower fiber network in 25 major metropolitan areas nationwide, including 21 new major metropolitan areas. In addition, as AT&T has described to the Commission in this proceeding, the synergies created by our DIRECTV transaction will allow us to extend our GigaPower service to at least 2 million additional customer locations, beyond those announced in April, within four years after close.

Although AT&T is willing to say it will deliver improved broadband to at least “15 million customer locations, mostly in rural areas,” it is also continuing its fiber shell game with the FCC by not specifying exactly how many of those customers will receive fiber broadband, how many will receive an incremental speed upgrade to their existing U-verse fiber/copper service, or not get fiber at all. AT&T routinely promises upgrades using a mix of technologies “such as” fiber to the home and fixed wireless, part of AT&T’s broader agenda to abandon its rural landline service and force customers to a much costlier and less reliable wireless data connection. It isn’t willing to tell the public who will win fiber upgrades and who will be forced off DSL in favor of AT&T’s enormously profitable wireless service.

Your right to know... undelivered.

Your right to know… undelivered. AT&T redacted information about its specific fiber plans.

Fun Fact: AT&T is cutting its investment in network upgrades by $3 billion in 2015 and plans a budget of $18 billion for capex investments across the entire company in 2015 — almost three times less than what AT&T is ready to spend just to acquire DirecTV.

The FCC was provided a market-by-market breakdown of how many customers currently get U-verse over AT&T’s fiber/copper “fiber to the neighborhood” network and those already getting fiber straight to the home. But this does not tell the FCC how many homes and businesses AT&T intends to wire for GigaPower — its gigabit speed network that requires fiber to the premises. Indeed, AT&T would only disclose how many homes and businesses it plans to provide with traditional U-verse using a combination of fiber and copper wiring — an inferior technology not capable of the speeds AT&T repeatedly touts in its press releases.

That has all the makings of an AT&T Fiber Snow Job only Buffalo could love.

AT&T also complained about the Obama Administration’s efforts to spoil AT&T’s fast lane Money Party:

At the same time, President Obama’s proposal in early November to regulate the entire Internet under rules from the 1930s injects significant uncertainty into the economics underlying our investment decisions. While we have reiterated that we will stand by the commitments described above, this uncertainty makes it prudent to pause consideration of any further investments – beyond those discussed above – to bring advanced broadband networks to even more customer locations, including additional upgrades of existing DSL and IPDSL lines, that might be feasible in the future under a more stable and predictable regulatory regime. To be clear, AT&T has not stated that the President’s proposal would render all of these locations unprofitable. Rather, AT&T simply cannot evaluate additional investment beyond its existing commitments until the regulatory treatment of broadband service is clarified.

AT&T’s too-cute-by-half ‘1930s era regulation’ talking point, also echoed by its financially tethered minions in the dollar-a-holler sock-puppet sector, suggests the Obama Administration is seeking to regulate AT&T as a monopoly provider. Except the Obama Administration is proposing nothing of the sort. The FCC should give AT&T’s comments the same weight it should give its fiber commitments — treat them as suspect at best. As we’ve written repeatedly, AT&T’s fabulous fiber future looks splendid on paper, but without evidence of spending sufficient to pay for it, AT&T’s piece of work should be filed under fiction.

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