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Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform Slams Another Public Broadband Project

Americans for Tax Reform’s leader Grover Norquist is continuing a campaign against municipally owned public broadband projects, labeling them “really stupid ideas” that are best left in the hands of private companies like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Charter.

Norquist’s group is one of many Koch Brothers’ funded groups butting into the local public discussion about Traverse City Light & Power’s new fiber-to-the-premises project, which would deliver a gigabit fiber optic alternative to the area’s dominant phone and cable companies. TCL&P already provides electric service in Traverse City, and is considering introducing fiber broadband for 2,300 downtown customers. As the local utility works towards developing a business plan, local officials are suddenly receiving opposition mailers and phone calls from a variety of national groups with a coordinated message against “government-owned networks.”

None of the groups contacting city officials will reveal their funding sources, but there are strong suspicions the coordinated effort is designed to protect the city’s existing duopoly, run by Charter Spectrum and AT&T.

The Record-Eagle notes city officials and residents are receiving professionally printed postcards and other mailers some consider “propaganda.” Not every letter of opposition generated by these campaigns appears to be genuine. Traverse City Commissioner Amy Shamroe told the newspaper the city studies incoming opposition emails and calls, and found many are questionable form letters, including a few that claim to be from “Firstnametest Lastnametest.”

Shamroe

“I encourage dissenting opinions, but I like them to come from real people,” she said.

Although some genuine Traverse City residents are telling local officials they oppose government competition with private businesses, Shamroe says a much larger number of people support the project and are frustrated with its slow pace.

Norquist argues public broadband believers are being snookered into supporting “really stupid ideas” that will ultimately require taxpayer bailouts or come with hidden fees and taxes. Norquist claims he is not aware of any successful municipal broadband project, despite the fact there are dozens of successful projects that have received strong support in their communities, especially when providers offer services that cable and phone companies will not deliver. In Michigan, Holland BPW (a municipal utility), Sebewing, and Midwest Connections Electric Co-Op, are all successfully providing fiber broadband services to their customers.

Much of the opposition to community broadband is designed to muddy the waters about such projects, using opposition mass-mailings and paid staffers to argue such broadband projects are risky at best, failures at worst. Their opposition is backed up with articles and studies that claim to prove government-run broadband has been a national fiasco, although most of their sources and studies have undisclosed direct or indirect ties to the same cable and phone companies that would face direct competition from a community run provider.

In the past, local officials have often been unprepared to deal with professionally-coordinated opposition efforts, but Traverse City officials are ready to deal with the opposition’s talking points, and have shared a detailed FAQ about the project.

One local resident brought many of those talking points up at an association meeting, and Shamroe was prepared to answer them point by point. The resident recognized he was “blindsided” by the opposition’s distorted representations about the project, and thanked Shamroe for addressing his concerns.

Ironically, Norquist told the newspaper he was particularly opposed to local utilities and governments using excess revenue earned from overcharging utility customers to fund fiber optic competition, arguing that if a provider is overcharging you for a service and making excess profits from it, “they should give you the money back.”

That is an argument Norquist has never brought to the attention of AT&T, Charter, Comcast, and Verizon.

Several States Rubber-Stamping Approval of T-Mobile/Sprint Merger; N.Y. Isn’t One of Them

A dispute is emerging in New York between Sprint and T-Mobile and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and pro-consumer group the Public Utility Law Project (PULP) over the wireless companies’ attempt to argue for their merger deal in a partly secretive filing not open to review by the public.

In a joint letter signed by Richard Brodsky, on behalf of the CWA and Richard Berkley, on behalf of PULP, the two groups argue Sprint’s initial summer filing promoting its merger did not come close to meeting the state’s burden of proof that allowing the two companies to join forces would be good for New York consumers. But even worse, the two wireless companies are now trying to introduce new arguments in favor of their merger, while redacting them from public view and comment.

“The use of the public comment process to recast the Petition, to attempt to repair the fatal defects in the Petition, and to insulate this new information from public comment is fundamentally unfair,” the two men wrote. “This maneuver deprives Parties of the opportunity to respond to the full set of arguments and assertions made by the Joint Applicants; it undermines the usefulness and value of the public comment policies so fundamental to the Commissions’ history and values and the proper conduct of a rulemaking proceeding; it is not contemplated by Commission rules; and it sets a precedent for future misuse of comments to short-circuit full public analysis.”

The companies filed what they called “comments” on Nov. 16. Detailed information about how the merger will impact on New York consumers was left redacted:

Sprint and T-Mobile’s arguments regarding the consumer benefits of its merger for New Yorkers remain a public mystery. The companies redacted this submission to keep the prying eyes of average consumers from reading it.

The CWA and PULP are asking the Commission for an order that:

1) Requires the Joint Applicants to provide unredacted submissions or to withdraw any document relying on redactions; and/or
2) Convenes an evidentiary hearing permitting examination and testimony relating to the Petition and the submission; and/or
3) Grants our previous request for a formal Public Hearing on the Petition and the submission; and/or
4) Removes from the record the Joint Applicants’ November 16 submission from the record; and/or
5) Extends the deadline for Notice and Comment in the October 19 Order to December 15, 2018; and/or such other relief as the Commission may order.

The merger of the two wireless companies requires state and federal approval. Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and the District of Columbia have already essentially “rubber-stamped” approval of the merger deal with little comment. Pennsylvania regulators submitted a series of questions that the two companies answered earlier this week.

Sprint and T-Mobile are having a tougher time dealing with regulators in New York and New Jersey, however — the two most likely to either deny approval or impose significant deal conditions in approving the transaction. A review is pending in California, which routinely asks a lot of questions but rarely opposes telecommunications company mergers. Hawaii and Mississippi will also examine the merger in the near future, but neither are expected to oppose it.

New York regulators are likely to consider the impact of the merger on the availability of affordable cellphone plans, the Lifeline program that offers discounted phone service for the poor, and how the transaction will affect rural wireless service in upstate New York.

Broadband Industry Pushing for Industry Version of Net Neutrality

A group largely funded by the telecommunications industry is among the latest to call on Congress to pass net neutrality legislation, just as long as the cable and phone companies that have fiercely opposed net neutrality as we know it get the chance to effectively write the law defining their vision of a free and open internet.

Broadband for America (BfA) has long pretended to represent the interests of consumers. It has tried to steer clear of partisan politics by representing itself as a bipartisan organization, claiming that since its formation in 2009, the Broadband for America coalition “has included members ranging from consumer groups, to content and application providers, to the companies that build and maintain the internet. Together these organizations represent the hundreds of millions of Americans who are literally connected through broadband.”

In this spirit, BfA has given top priority to adopting a new, bipartisan, federal net neutrality law that would eliminate the regulatory uncertainty changing administrations have introduced through agencies like the FCC.

The telecom industry shuddered under the Obama Administration’s FCC with Thomas Wheeler as chairman. Wheeler pushed for bright line net neutrality rules that cut off the industry’s ability to toy with paid fast lanes on the internet, potentially costing telecom companies billions in future revenue opportunities. Wheeler backed his regulatory authority by using Title II regulations that have withstood corporate court challenges since the 1930s, and made clear that authority also extended to blocking or banning future creative monetization schemes that unfairly favored some internet traffic at the expense of other traffic.

The incoming Trump Administration discarded almost every regulatory policy introduced by Wheeler through its appointed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai. With Republicans in firm control at the FCC, in the White House, and in Congress, the broadband industry and its political allies feel safe to draft and pass a new federal law that will give companies regulatory certainty. One proposal could potentially permanently remove the FCC’s future ability to flexibly manage changing broadband industry practices.

BfA’s “pro net neutrality” campaign directly targets consumers through its website while also pretending to represent their interests. It is a classic D.C. astroturfing operation — fooling unwitting consumers into pushing for policies against their best interests. BfA claims it supports “policies that align with the core principles of an open internet: no blocking, no throttling, no discrimination and most importantly, ensuring all consumers have access to internet. Further, despite state efforts, only Congress maintains the power to regulate the internet.”

Broadband for America’s campaign to block this legislative maneuver actually helps net neutrality opponents.

Since no phone or cable company in the country is seeking to block, throttle, or discriminate against certain websites, passing a law that prohibits this is not controversial. But BfA does not mention other, more threatening practices ISPs have toyed with in recent years that would be banned by robust net neutrality rules. At the top of the list is “paid fast lanes,” allowing preferred content partners to get preferential treatment on sometimes clogged internet pipes. As past controversies between Netflix and Google over interconnection agreements illustrate, if an internet provider refuses to continually upgrade traffic pipelines, all traffic can suffer. With paid prioritization, some traffic will suffer even more because of preferential treatment given to sponsored traffic. The industry does not call this throttling, and some ISPs have blamed content providers for the problem, suggesting Netflix and YouTube traffic unfairly takes a toll on their networks.

BfA also objects to state efforts to bring back net neutrality, claiming such regulatory powers only belong in the hands of the federal government (especially the current one). It is no coincidence BfA’s beliefs and policies mirror their benefactors. While claiming to represent the interests of consumers, BfA is almost entirely funded by: AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, CTIA – The Wireless Association, Comcast, Cox, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), and USTelecom-The Broadband Association. The only major American telecom company not on this list is Verizon, but their interests are represented by USTelecom, an industry-funded lobbying group that backs America’s top telephone companies.

Broadband for America shares a list of some of its members — all a part of the cable, wireless, and telephone industry.

Under the guise of the midterm elections, BfA issued a new call for federal legislation enforcing the telecom industry’s definition of net neutrality, and not just on telecom companies. BfA also wants regulation of “edge providers,” a wonky term that means any website, web service, web application, online content hosting or online content delivery service that customers access over the internet. In reality, the only edge providers the industry is concerned with are Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook — companies that often directly compete against telecom company-backed content ventures and lucrative online advertising. Ironically, many Republicans that have strongly argued for deregulation have supported imposing new laws and regulatory oversight on some of these companies — notably Google and Facebook. Amazon joined the list as a result of President Trump’s ongoing feud with Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and owner of the Washington Post.

Backing the BfA’s lobbying push for a new net neutrality law are results from a suspect BfA-commissioned (and paid for) study by a polling firm that claims “87 percent of voters ‘react positively to arguments for a new legislative approach that sets one clear set of rules to protect consumer privacy that applies to all internet companies, websites, devices and applications.’” A full copy of the study, the exact questions asked during polling, and more information about the sampling process was not available to review. Instead, the conclusions were posted as an opinion piece by Inside Sources, a website that provides D.C. strategy, public relations, and lobbying firms with a free home to publish OpEds on behalf of their clients. Newspapers are allowed to reprint Inside Sources wire service content for free, sometimes without full disclosure of the financial arrangements behind the studies or author(s) involved.

The BfA campaign for a federal net neutrality law is not in isolation. The telecom industry has been on an all-out push for a new net neutrality law since Ajit Pai led the campaign to repeal the FCC rules. The industry’s campaign for pseudo-net neutrality has even won over some in the media like the editorial board of the Washington Post, that published its own OpEd in early October calling Wheeler’s use of Title II authority a regulatory overreach. The Post also has no patience for lawsuits being filed by telecom companies and the Justice Department against the state of California after passing its own statewide net neutrality law. The industry pushback in court is part of the Post’s argument for a new national law to ‘end confusion’:

The fight over net neutrality today can be reduced to a single sentence: Everyone is suing everyone else. Congress should step in.

The Justice Department said Sunday it will take California to court over its law requiring Internet service providers to treat all traffic equally. Those ISPs were already primed to sue states on their own. And California is one of more than 20 states suing the Federal Communications Commission over its repeal of the Obama administration’s rules. “We’re not out to protect the robber barons. We want to protect the people,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) told us.

The FCC abdicated its responsibility on net neutrality when it repealed the old rules with no adequate replacement. Now, without setting forth its own rules, the federal government is seeking to block states from creating their own. That may be frustrating to Americans who want an Internet where providers do not dictate what information reaches them and how fast. But a nationwide framework governing net neutrality would be preferable to a patchwork of state regulations establishing local regimes for systems that transcend borders. And creating that framework is up to Congress.

But not all are confused. California resident Bob Jacobson defended his state’s interests in a rebuttal to the Post’s editorial:

Absurd reasoning emanating from the nation’s capital of corruption, Washington, DC. California has always led the nation — including the Federal government — in the sensible, productive regulation and consequent growth of its telecom and information economy, now the world’s largest. The Moore Universal Telecom Services Act, passed in reaction to the breakup of the old AT&T, is still the nation’s only comprehensive, progressive telecom policy, its success reflected in California’s robust technological and social infrastructure. Rather than supersede California’s policies, our national and other state legislature’s and regulatory agencies should learn from and adapt them to better serve equally all the American people. (And get rid of that mockery known as the Trump FCC.)

Verizon Quits ALEC After Group Hands Microphone to Right-Wing Provocateur David Horowitz

Down one big member — Verizon

Verizon has quit the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate funded alliance between big business and Republican state lawmakers, after right-wing activist David Horowitz used a guest appearance at the 45th ALEC Annual Meeting in New Orleans to launch into a tirade against opponents of President Donald Trump, claiming Democrats are socialists bent on attacking traditional American values.

To rousing applause from many of the 1,500 legislators and lobbyists in attendance, Horowitz used two speeches to attack the LGBTQ community, people of color, public education, feminism, gender equality, and the rights of women to seek independent access to reproductive healthcare.

Specifically, Horowitz claimed public schools are “indoctrination and recruitment centers for the Democratic party and its socialist left” and that “school curricula had been turned over to racist organizations like Black Lives Matter and terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.” On a later panel, Horowitz told the audience Trump had not gone far enough attacking his enemies, and defended the president’s remarks calling a woman “a pig.” Those who disagreed were called “communists” by Horowitz.  He also argued the United States could only have been founded by Protestant Christians.

Horowitz speaks at ALEC conference in August 2018.

The incendiary remarks are nothing new for Horowitz, who repeatedly called President Barack Obama “a secret Muslim” and sponsors a website that claims Muslim migrants are carriers of infectious disease and predators with a “violent lust for ‘white’ women.”

Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Wisc.) attends ALEC events often to learn more about what the opposition is doing. Her observations from this year’s conference reflect ALEC in disarray, as the formerly unified, corporate-focused group is becoming more fragmented as emboldened right-wing activists demand a voice at the table.

They want state’s rights, except when they don’t. The same contradiction is evident with their struggle with local control–sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t. The defining factor is whether these levels of government promote the far-right ALEC agenda. It is getting harder and harder for ALEC to ignore these internal contradictions.

And there are visible cracks in ALEC world. Collectively, this was the messiest and least disciplined ALEC conference I have attended since 2013. In the energy task force, presentations were all over the place. A natural gas and electricity supplier went off script by openly discussing the billions in subsidies the oil and gas industry receives. There was silence in the crowded task force room, filled with fossil fuel producers and lobbyists.

[…] In the Health and Human Services task force, the Goldwater Institute and Buckeye Foundation were in a tizzy because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was still in existence and the left seemed to win that war, at least for now. How could it be, they moaned, when Republicans are in charge of EVERYTHING? They whined that the “debacle of last year was horrible” and that Congress wouldn’t touch another repeal with a 10-foot poll. So, 100 conservative groups came together to propose an alternative plan that guts the ACA, again. But the list was messy and confusing, and even the presenters seemed doubtful their plan would ever succeed.

But the biggest disaster I have ever seen at an ALEC conference was on a panel about the Convention of States (COS) project. COS is mobilizing in states to call an Article V Constitutional Convention for the purposes of amending the federal constitution by passing a balanced budget amendment, term-limits for federal judges, and who knows what else. One of the key speakers was right-wing provocateur David Horowitz. Horowitz is listed in a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report published by Alternet with the title “10 of America’s Most Dangerous Hatemongers”.

After converting from being a Marxist decades ago, Horowitz now runs his own right-wing think tank, bankrolled to the tune of $3.4 million by the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Horowitz gained recent fame as a key mentor of Trump advisor Stephen Miller, the man behind Trump’s family separation policy according to the Atlantic.

[…] ALEC is moving into dangerous territory. Despite the formidable infrastructure they have built over 45 years, their control of 33 state legislatures and their hordes of corporate cash that perpetually grease their wheels, the organization seems to be increasingly in disarray and in an identity crisis. While simultaneously distancing themselves from the chaos and corruption of President Trump, the reality is that they need him, and his hate-mongering, to further the foundation of their right-wing agenda–gutting the ACA and federal conservation standards, repealing workers’ rights, pushing down wages and privatizing public education.

And so the Horowitz’s of the world, who ALEC at least publicly has kept at a distance during my tenure, are now becoming part of the ALEC universe. Are ALEC supporters, including their corporate funders, willing to embrace this hate-mongering to continue to advance their corporate agenda?

Horowitz’s brand of politics may be popular with party activists, but corporate ALEC members are more concerned about their public image.

After Horowitz’s appearance, Verizon notified ALEC it was resigning from the group.

“Our company has no tolerance for racist, white supremacist or sexist comment or ideals,” a Verizon spokesperson said in a statement.

It is a severe blow to ALEC, which welcomed Verizon as a dues paying member in 1988, when Verizon lobbyist Ron Scheberle served as chairman of ALEC’s board.

ALEC’s damage control effort came in a statement to the press:

ALEC takes speaker vetting seriously and—in partnership with meeting sponsors—applies a rigorous process to identify speakers on important matters of public policy. Each speaker is apprised of the ALEC policy focus, how to address the audience and what issues not to discuss. ALEC does not work on social issues. Rather it focuses on limited government, free markets and federalism at the intersection of the economy and public policy.

In this case, the speaker was advised of the program parameters and did not abide the process.

Upon learning of concern following the conclusion of remarks, ALEC staff removed the video archive of the livestream and ceased promotion of the speech as the comments were inconsistent with the manner in which speeches are offered at ALEC.

ALEC was launched to give its corporate members and lobbyists direct access to state legislators to shepherd corporate ghost-written bills into state laws or at least heavily influence members’ bills to make them corporate-friendly. In some cases, corporate-written “model bills” were adopted word-for-word by some state legislatures and became law, with the help of Republican support and co-sponsors.

Rep. Taylor

Verizon and other telecom company members like Comcast and AT&T have benefited handsomely from membership in ALEC, successfully pushing through state laws for statewide video franchising, eliminating local control over cable television providers, pole attachment and zoning reform for wireless companies, working to eliminate universal service obligations and regulatory oversight for landline service, state bans on municipal broadband competition, and most recently working to stop states from writing their own net neutrality provisions to replace those lost on the federal level.

ALEC has always maintained close ties to Republicans and its deep pocketed corporate members. But until recently, it has usually shied away from headlining lightning rod social issues out of deference to its controversy-shy corporate members.

Horowitz’s remarks, live-streamed across the internet by ALEC, may have been the final straw for Verizon. In late August, 79 public interest and environmental groups co-signed a letter to ALEC members drawing attention to Horowitz’s remarks and asking companies to leave the group for good.

“Make no mistake, your continued financial support of ALEC is an endorsement of this dangerous vision for our country,” the letter said.

It’s also apparently bad for business.

David Horowitz speaking at 2018 ALEC Conference in New Orleans, La. on Aug. 10, 2018. (17:51)

Wireless Industry Claims Removing Regulatory Hurdles Will Save $1.6 Billion on 5G Deployment

Accenture’s six-page analysis.

CTIA, America’s largest wireless industry trade group and lobbyist, commissioned a research consultant to produce a six-page analysis that unsurprisingly concludes stripping some oversight responsibilities regarding cell tower placement would reduce the cost to deploy 5G wireless small cells by as much as $1.6 billion over the next nine years.

The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering industry-friendly proposals that would “streamline” and “modernize” the historic and environmental regulatory requirements for wireless deployments, exclude small cells from certain federal regulatory reviews, and put a strict limit on completing environmental impact reviews on new tower and antenna installations or else they will be automatically approved.

The Accenture analysis, produced at the request of CTIA, claims that it will cost an average of $9,730 for each 5G small cell regulatory review. But the report also states only 28-29% of installations will face this type of review. The CTIA implies it is much worse than that in its new 30-second ad complaining about regulatory burdens. That ad suggests 5G small cell “approval can take a couple of years.”

As the FCC ponders further deregulation of cell tower and antenna placement, wireless industry players are sharing their horror stories with the FCC to strengthen the agency’s likely  view that installation rules and oversight should be relaxed.

In January, Sprint complained it faced a demand to pay a $90,000 “tribal review fee” for six tower upgrades in the Chicago area. The company claims the towers were located in historic preservation areas, but not in areas of tribal significance. Sprint added in its letter to the FCC it only planned to install additional antenna equipment at those tower sites to increase capacity, not erect new towers.

The wireless industry is also lobbying to get cut-rate access to public infrastructure like street lights, on which it eventually plans to place 5G network equipment.

In states like California, AT&T has pushed hard for new legislation that would mandate cities and counties to give the company open access to public infrastructure in public rights-of-way or utility easements. In a 2017 bill before the California Senate, companies like AT&T would face a fee limit of $100-850 per small cell per year, indexed for inflation,

With multiple wireless companies prepared to enter the 5G marketplace, utility poles could get crowded.

Cities and counties may also find their right to object to what eventually ends up on their poles curtailed as a result of the deregulation effort.

CTIA’s new 30-second advertisement claims 5G small cells can be installed in about 90 minutes, but only after waiting years for a sluggish review process. (30 seconds)

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