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Civil Rights Group Shenanigans: Promoting the T-Mobile/Sprint Merger in Quid Pro Quo Deal

Many of the same civil rights groups that regularly advocate their support of giant corporate telecom mergers are back once again to show their support for the controversial T-Mobile/Sprint merger. But that support does not come for free.

A “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) that includes “philanthropy and community investment” that does not exclude direct financial contributions from the two wireless companies to these civil rights groups is a major part of a new “understanding” announced today between several organizations founded to represent minority interests and T-Mobile and Sprint that the wireless companies hope will deliver an imprimatur for the troubled merger deal with regulators and politicians.

The key items in the MOU:

  1. Standing up a national diversity and inclusion council comprised of non-employees from diverse groups, including each of the multicultural leadership organizations that are party to the MOU, and other highly esteemed community leaders to facilitate open communication over the development, monitoring, and evaluation of diversity initiatives and to provide advice to the New T-Mobile senior executives.

  2. With the help and input of the council, developing and implementing a Diversity Strategic Plan addressing each of the key elements of the MOU and reflecting best practices in the industry.

  3. Increasing the diversity of its leadership and workforce at all levels including its Board governance, to reflect the diversity of the communities in which it operates.

  4. Making a targeted effort to increase partnerships, business, and procurement activities with diverse business enterprises in a range of categories such as financial and banking services, advertising, legal services and asset sales. New T-Mobile aims to become a member of the Billion Dollar Roundtable by 2025.

  5. Expanding wireless offerings to low-income citizens, underserved minority populations and insular and rural areas, and to organizations serving these underserved communities [including] a significant philanthropic investment for institutions serving disadvantaged or underrepresented communities to support tech entrepreneurship and to bridge the gap in literacy.

The groups, most familiar to Stop the Cap! readers that have followed civil rights groups engaged in pay for play advocacy, include:

In a joint statement, the groups urged the FCC to approve the T-Mobile/Sprint merger “so the combined New T-Mobile can definitively launch these enhanced diversity efforts and expansion of service to all communities included in the MOU.”

“T-Mobile is honored to partner with these visionary organizations to create an action plan of this magnitude that includes commitments to diversity and inclusion that are bolder than ever before,” John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile and CEO of New T-Mobile, said in a statement. “With this MOU, we have doubled down on ensuring we represent the communities we serve today and will serve as the New T-Mobile in the future. We are excited for the New T-Mobile to become a reality so we can get to work on delivering these commitments.”

Except in most cases, these kinds of arrangements serve mostly as window dressing, gussying up otherwise nakedly anti-consumer merger deals under the guise of serving minority or disadvantaged interests. Money often quietly flows between the corporate and the non-profit side, usually in the form of donations. Some groups may also offer token advisory board positions to executives, which usually cements an ongoing advocacy relationship.

Members of these civil rights organizations have a right to be puzzled why such groups are spending significant time and resources engaged in corporate advocacy. The interests of two major corporations cementing a multi-billion dollar merger deal and civil rights groups trying to fight discrimination and improve the lives of their constituents are often tangential, if not in direct opposition to each other. Apparently the money that usually comes with these arrangements matters much more.

California Governor Vetoes Rural Broadband Development Bills; AT&T and Frontier Benefit the Most

Gov. Newsom

California’s efforts to address the state’s ongoing rural broadband problems made little headway in 2019, as Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the past week vetoed (or allowed to expire) the only two broadband measures surviving the treacherous journey through the California legislature.

Assembly Bill 1212 would have made rural broadband a priority for Caltrans — California’s Department of Transportation and the Department of Water Resources, including broadband on recommended lists of projects for funding consideration by two of the state’s largest pension investment funds: the California Public Employees Retirement System and the California State Teachers Retirement System. Current state law only allows pension boards to invest in in-state infrastructure projects that meet certain fiduciary responsibilities. By expanding investment projects to include telecommunications, funding from two major pension funds might have been unlocked and made available to future rural internet projects.

Assembly Bill 417, also known as the Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Act, included several measures targeting rural farming. Two passages in the bill would have included broadband expansion as a new priority for the California Department of Food and Agriculture (DFA):

Due to the central role of agriculture in rural California, it is necessary to achieve a detailed understanding of the economic value that agriculture brings to rural communities and to identify opportunities to improve agricultural productivity, including by increasing broadband access, advancing agricultural innovation, technology, and education, and supporting a well-trained, productive rural workforce, to benefit rural communities.

[…] Making recommendations to the secretary on actions to further the development of rural agricultural economies, including, but not limited to, increasing broadband access, providing technical, resource, and regulatory compliance assistance, advancing agricultural innovation and technology, establishing programs for education and workforce development, and evaluating recreation and tourism opportunities.

Several other proposed measures, including AB 1409 which would have created a fund for providing wireless hotspots for students and Wi-Fi service on school buses was killed last spring behind closed doors in the California Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. The annual attempt by AT&T and other telecom companies to write their own laws to deregulate themselves (this time AB 1366), was suddenly pulled from committee consideration by its author back in September.

That the two mild measures made it through the legislature to the governor’s desk was not surprising considering the sheer number of minor bills that pile up on Newsom’s desk. But for both to suffer quiet deaths through veto or expiration despite almost no public opposition speaks to the power of Sacramento insider politics.

Newsom’s explanation for killing AB 1212 was hardly compelling, as he explained he felt the measure was “unnecessary” because “existing law already encourages public retirement systems to invest in state infrastructure.” But that explanation ignores decades of state government bureaucracy, where agencies zealously guard their funding and protect their own existing project priorities to the hilt. AB 417 would have expanded the mission of the DFA, something the governor argued should only be done in the state budget and only within the specific context of the broader mission of the department, whatever that means. The head of the DFA was likely thrilled anyway.

Telecom consultant Steve Blum notes Caltrans and other state agencies were unlikely to ever consider rural broadband a funding priority, unless it was intended for their own use. Blum also believes the most likely suspects responsible for convincing the governor to kill both bills were the heads of the departments themselves.

“The simplest explanation for Newsom’s vetoes is that Caltrans, DWR and/or DFA staff asked him to do it, because those are jobs they don’t want to do,” Blum wrote on his blog. “That sort of opposition was why a Caltrans dig once policy bill was watered down in 2016.”

Blum believes the state’s largest phone companies will benefit the most from the outcome of the 2019 legislative session.

“Newsom’s vetoes bolster AT&T’s and Frontier’s rural monopoly business model, which redlines poorer and less densely populated communities and leaves them with low speed DSL service, if they’re lucky enough to get anything at all,” he wrote.

The loss of AB 1212 and 417 won’t change much for Californians waiting for rural broadband. Neither measure would have led to any immediate improvement in internet access in the less populated areas of the state. But the measures would have set a foundation to bring two more state agencies into the fight to tackle rural broadband issues.

Ultimately, just as in other states, a large amount of money will have to be found to wire those still without internet access. Governments and regulators can either make rural internet expansion a contingency of future merger deals or other business-government transactions or find suitable funding to subsidize the cost of internet expansion by for-profit companies, rural co-ops, or local governments willing to tackle the problem on the local level.

AT&T Charges Customers to Recoup Cost of Tax It Never Paid

Phillip Dampier October 14, 2019 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

AT&T customers in Portland, Ore. discovered their cell phone bills increased this summer because the wireless company decided to pass along the costs of Portland’s Clean Energy Tax to its customers. Except AT&T is exempt from paying the tax, but wants customers to pay to recoup costs the phone company is not paying.

Portland’s Revenue Bureau told Willamette Week it classifies cell phone providers as utilities, and they are exempt from the tax.

Scott Karter, a manager in the Revenue Bureau, said it was up to AT&T to decide if it will refund customers for the charges it has collected since August.

“The code does not specifically address amounts that might be over-collected from customers,” Karter said.

AT&T had no comment.

Nevada’s Attorney General Finds Frontier Internet Lacking, Wins Refunds and Upgrades

Frontier residential customers in Nevada could receive a refund and improved service after a court filing from the Nevada Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP) found Frontier’s internet services lacking.

Since 2017, BCP has collected scores of complaints about Frontier’s internet service and its performance, mostly regarding slow service, frequent outages, and ongoing billing problems.

The BCP found Frontier liable under NRS Chapter 598 which forbids providers from misleading consumers about internet speed and service performance in marketing and advertising. An Assurance of Discontinuance filed with the court allowed Frontier to settle while avoiding admitting any wrongdoing and agreeing to correct service deficiencies.

The state found Frontier repeatedly did not disclose limitations of broadband service availability and knowingly marketed its DSL service at speeds the company could not provide customers.

According to the court document:

  • Frontier is required to “clearly and conspicuously” disclose in its print and broadcast advertising the actual internet speeds available to customers in terms of minimum and maximum speed.
  • Customers that sign up for a high-speed plan that Frontier cannot provide may switch to a lower speed plan or discontinue service incurring no penalties or early cancellation fees.
  • Existing customers that do not receive at least 90% of the highest speed their current plan advertises will receive a service credit of 50% of the internet charge for each month Frontier did not provide such speed. Credits will begin in 2020 and end three years after the date the court accepts the Assurance.
  • Frontier has also agreed to invest at least $1 million to improve internet service in Elko County.

AT&T Ditches Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands to Raise Money to Cut Debt, Buy Back Its Own Stock

AT&T will sell its operations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to John Malone’s Liberty Latin America, Ltd., setting up a virtual market monopoly for Liberty, which already owns cable operator Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico.

Liberty Latin America has agreed to pay $1.95 billion in cash to acquire 1.1 million AT&T cellular, landline, and internet customers in both U.S. territories.

AT&T intends to use the proceeds of the sale to reduce debt and allow the company to lay the foundation to buy back more of its own shares, pleasing investors. AT&T had originally sought up to $3 billion for the Caribbean networks, partly acquired from a 2009 acquisition of Centennial Communications, which cost AT&T less than $1 billion.

Analysts say the low selling price shows AT&T is feeling pressure from activist investor Elliott Management, which has been pushing AT&T to divest non-core assets. The selling price was also impacted by the distressed state of AT&T’s infrastructure and customer base, impacted by Hurricane Maria in 2017, which damaged both the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents.

Liberty already has a major presence in Puerto Rico through its cable system — Puerto Rico’s largest pay television and broadband provider. Cable tycoon John Malone will effectively control Puerto Rico’s largest wireless phone and cable company. Claro, Puerto Rico’s landline provider, will be its chief competitor.

The two companies said they expect the deal to close within six to nine months.

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