Telco/Cable TV lobbying Blitz Costing Nearly $1 Mil Per Week in DC Market/ Big Bucks Spent to Pave Way for Broadband Monopolies

Everyone has seen the TV ads from both the phone and cable lobby urging Congress to support their plans to control the future of the broadband Internet in the U.S. Companies such as Qwest, Comcast, Time Warner, and AT&T want to be broadband barons—with all other content providers and users reduced to serving as merely consuming digital surfs.

How much is the PR blitz costing? Well, intrepid media consultant Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications has done the math. “About 975K is being spent on Washington-area media buying,” he told us. That sum is mostly for local broadcast TV expenditures. According to Mr. Arlen, the U.S. Telecom Association has been spending $250 K/week (and so far has run-up a six-week $1.5 million ad tab). AT&T is forking out $600K per week (for its “Choice” campaign). TV4US, a telco “Astroturf” group, is spending $75k per week for at least a four-week air time buy. The NCTA, meanwhile, has gone through at least $ 1 million nationally in a year, spending 50K a week in the DC market as Congress meets. [Arlen is one of the most insightful people working in the media biz—and keeps an eagle-like eye on where the business is heading.]

Of course, once Rep. Joe Barton and Sen. Ted Stevens pass legislation giving control over broadband to the country’s cable and phone giants, they will be able to give themselves preferred high-speed interactive video treatment at rock-bottom (free!) rates.

Question: With next week’s House floor vote on Barton-Rush—will Microsoft, Yahoo!, Amazon, Google, eBay, and IAC spend the necessary dough to sound the alarm?

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As Fight Against Telco/Cable Net Monopoly Looms for House Floor, the Barton-Rush Bill Should Be Scuttled. More “Scholars” with Undisclosed Financial Connections Back the Telco/Cable PR campaign

Proponents of network neutrality will engage in hand-to-hand political combat next week, as the Barton-Rush broadbanditry bill comes to a vote on the House floor. Led by Rep. Ed Markey, the Democrats have apparently awakened from their slumber on network neutrality. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi now plans to co-sponsor the Markey amendment. Ms. Pelosi, Rep. Boucher and others are seeking a ruling to bring the neutrality amendment for a vote. It is also reported that the Democrats will offer an amendment on what is called “build-out.” This would help redress somewhat the plans of AT&T and Verizon to engage in economic redlining; these giants only desire to initially serve the most affluent customers (leaving low-income and others behind).

A sharp, very public, debate over network neutrality is greatly needed. That’s why we hope everyone will also speak out by sending word to Congress on where you stand on the issue (see Members of Congress need to make it clear. Are they for the handful of cable and phone giants who are engaged in a digital power grab of the Internet in the U.S.? Or will they side with Internet users and the general public?

But the entire Barton-Rush “Telco/Cable Broadband Monopoly Enrichment Act of 2006” has been written to ultimately benefit a few special interests. It’s not really a forward thinking broadband bill. It does nothing to address equitable access by the poor and low income Americans to the Internet; fails to protect online privacy; and undermines local accountability. Yesterday, we covered some of these issues for The Nation and Alternet.

Finally, it appears every day some other “prominent” academic or scholar comes to the aid of the Bells or cable lobby. Yesterday, it was Dr. John Rutledge, a self-described “leading free-market economist” in the U.S. Rutledge dismissed network neutrality as a “contrived issue.” What is contrived is certainly the failure of Dr. Rutledge in his press release to identify the political and financial links he has to the cable and phone lobby. Dr. Rutledge is on the board of the telco/cable backed Progress and Freedom Foundation and the Heartland Institute. The failure of Dr. Rutledge to disclose in his pro Bell/cable release these and other commercial ties illustrates why Congress should pass a “Fess Up, Academics and Nonprofits on the Corporate Dole” consumer protection act.

USTA: More Lies Faster: Repetitive Promise Syndrome…And Microsoft Says it will do better Net Neutrality Fight

The United States Telecom Association (USTA), the lobbying arms for AT&T (SBC) and Verizon, is running a blitz of misleading ads—online and on T.V. As Congress prepares to debate the “Save our Internet” issue this week, USTA is scrambling to amplify its message: “Let our members—AT&T and Verizon—control the Internet in the U.S.” Or, as AT&T honcho Ed Whitacre now infamously said, the U.S. Internet should operate as the company’s private “pipes.”

One of USTA’s many front-group lobbying efforts is something it calls “The Future…Faster.” Supposedly a “coalition,” Faster is nothing more than a collection of past promises broken. But it’s a useful reminder about how USTA and its members are never to be trusted. On its website, one can click on a number of categories to learn about how the Bell broadband agenda will help America, and why one should disregard the call for consumer and public interest safeguards. But what’s striking about Faster is that the Telcos are now making the exact same phony promises and claims said to Congress and the public more than ten years ago—to help them win favorable language in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. (So, hey, all you members of Congress who have taken their dough. You better do a fact-check on what the USTA now purports will be a potential public benefit. You are about to buy the digital Brooklyn Bridge for at least the second time).

Faster says supporting its agenda will give “Bring Medical Solutions to All Americans;” that it will “Bring the World of Knowledge to Schools and Educators;” and “More Choice… for Consumers.” These are the exact promises made by USTA, NCTA, and both the GOP and Democratic leadership to the country back in 1996. For example, back in 1994 and testifying before Congress, a Bell witness promised that the country would have a broadband network that would “spur the development of new interactive consumer services in education, entertainment, government, and health care.”

They didn’t deliver then and they don’t intend to do so now. We all know what AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, et al really want: to help their tired old media monopoly business model gain a faster hold over the broadband digital marketplace. That’s the reality. And if we permit that to happen the “Reality” will be harmful to consumers, seniors, educators and everyone else who desires a America that reflects our highest aspirations as a culture. Not some dumbed-down, meter always running, and `we’re data collecting on you,’ AT&T/Verizon/USTA Internet.

By the way, we received a call yesterday from Microsoft. They promised that the company would now be mobilizing more resources to get Congress to pass network neutrality legislation.

The Propaganda Channel and the Net Neutrality Debate

If you haven’t seen the “Pentagon Channel” produced by the Department of Defense, you’re missing a classic—and outrageous–propaganda effort aimed for U.S. audiences. This 24/7 “video news” network, as it calls itself, outshines even Fox News in its fealty to the official U.S. government line about Iraq. But since one of the channel’s star “talents” is Don Rumsfeld himself, it’s not surprising. What is shocking is that the U.S. is producing a channel for domestic use that is clearly propaganda—and should be taken off the many U.S. cable systems and satellite services that carry it.

With a program line-up that includes the daily “Freedom Journal Iraq” and
“Around the Services” (from the Pentagon “NewsCenter-daily…military news from top Defense officials”) to “Inside Afghanistan,” and the “Stallion Report” ( “a bi-weekly news program from Mosul, Iraq”), the Pentagon Channel airs the official view. We are all fighting for “freedom.” We are winning the “hearts and minds” of the Iraq people, says one reporter for “Freedom Journal Iraq.” Scenes of “hunting bad guys,” and “missions of good will” are shown (including pictures of renovated schools displaying posters of Disney characters).

Major cable, satellite and telephone companies have given the U.S. government channel free carriage, including Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, Cox, and Echostar. The channel reaches about 12 million cable and satellite viewers; it’s also distributed in the U.S. and around the world on military bases. The channel is working to expand its distribution, including going after space reserved for public access channels (which were created to promote free speech—not governmental PR). This week the channel launched itself as a video and audio podcast via the Internet. Secretary of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld declared that he was “…pleased that we are using video casting and other increasingly important technologies to reach our global audience…”

The Voice of America is prohibited from airing its service in the U.S. The Pentagon Channel should also be similarly banned. We hope the Pentagon Channel will be scrutinized by more media critics and policymakers. Having a taxpayer-backed channel that promotes itself as “news” when it’s really about pushing an Administration’s political agenda should clearly be unacceptable policy.

But—now for the connection with network neutrality. In a world where the big cable and phone companies can dominate the U.S. broadband and TV market—expect more favorable treatment for such official government PR efforts. Whether it’s giving the Department of Defense a helping hand with its propaganda channel or turning over to the NSA and other agencies our personal communications—the big cable/telco broadband monopoly will strive to please officials. That’s where the quid pro quo deal making—let’s us control the network and we will treat you `right,’ is likely to occur. You can be sure that when Ed Whitacre of AT&T charges a Google for using what it considers its “pipes,” it will give the official view–such as the Pentagon Channel–a free, high-speed broadband ride.

To see if your cable service carries the channel, click here. It’s also streamed online.

Caspian×?Ts Net Neutral Proposal

The networking technology company Caspian has offered a ×??Fair Use Policy Framework×?? paper that claims to meaningfully address the current debate over the future of the U.S. broadband Internet. It has a mouthful of a subtitle: ×??A Nondiscriminatory and Noninvasive Approach to Managing Internet Traffic in Full Compliance with U.S. Law and Federal Communications Commission Policy.×?? The ×??abridged×?? version is available on its website (and is the one discussed below). A press release on the report is available.
On the one hand, we applaud the company×?Ts participation in what should be a more contested and public debate over our broadband future. But they show a lack of real understanding about why this issue is so important. Caspian dismisses the current discussion about how the Net should be governed as no more than heated rhetorical posturing. The authors of the paper should have understood that we are arguing about more than which company or industry will come out on top. Whatever is decided about so-called network neutrality will affect the quality of our lives in a democracy that is being fundamentally shaped by digital communications.
First, this is not about ×??maximizing consumer choice,×?? as they put it. It×?Ts about ensuring that digital networks strengthen civic discourse, diversity of expression, and economic opportunity. In another words, the debate is really about the role broadband communications and citizen/public participation in our society. The paper claims that ×??proponents of unlimited network neutrality×?ignore×?that increased Internet usage has resulted in increased congestion.×?? (Not surprisingly, Caspian’s message in the paper is that products such as its ×??media controllers×?? can help ensure more equitable traffic management.) But the paper fails to explore how policies requiring that the cable and telcos add more bandwidth capacity would help address many congestion concerns.

The paper does underscore why public interest groups and many new media companies are alarmed about cable/telco plans for the future of digital distribution. Caspian critiques what it terms their ×??absolutist position for unrestricted managed access×?? by underscoring how AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others can readily impose higher consumer rates, invade our privacy, and block or impede access to online content.

We await the full paper from Caspian. But we urge readers not to readily support the notion of ×??higher-quality,×?? tiered ($) access models for broadband. It will help usher in a new generation of broadband content that potentially discriminates against users and content providers.

PS/Disclosure: Caspian cites some of our writings (and others, such as Rep. Rick Boucher and Common Cause) as examples of ×??sensationalist statements×?? about the net neutrality debate among their footnoted references. The paper also says that net neutral proponents don×?Tt see the need for fair traffic management. We do. But we don×?Tt want the cable/telco private cop patroling the digital beat.

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Congress Does a Corrupt ‘96 Telecom Act Re-run

The same `big telecom money buys itself special interest legislation’ that created the 1996 Telecom Act give-away is now in play again. A congressional wrecking crew—under the guise of “updating” our nation’s telecom laws—will do even more damage to our media system. Ten years ago, Congress gave us more consolidation in the cable, broadcast TV/radio, and telecom sectors. It sparked an unprecedented shopping spree where newspapers, TV/radio stations, telephone, and cable companies were bought and sold at dizzying speed. Freed by Congress from any constraint, cable rates soared. We have no policy so Americans can readily receive a diverse array of news and culture beyond the narrow confines of the show-biz, ad-supported media industry. The 96 Act failed to ensure low-income and rural Americans would have residential access to the Internet; nor were there any policies promoting diverse ownership of programming content in cable and satellite networks (esp. by persons of color). Behind closed doors, the GOP and media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, Robert Wright of GE and executives from many companies stuck a private deal that became the 96 Act.

Now, they are doing it again. Taking in huge sums of money from phone and cable companies, Congress is permitting the Internet and new digital networks to fall under greater control of phone and cable monopolies; they are killing off the last vestige of localism—municipal franchising for community communications; permitting wide-spread discrimination against lower-income Americans by allowing phone companies to only serve the most affluent. Congress will also set the stage for even more media consolidation (think phone companies buying TV stations or a broacast network and a Comcast/Google merger), higher rates for all communications services (wired and wireless), and a commercial culture for the U.S. dominated by the most powerful special interests (especially major entertainment and advertising companies).

Everything Congress is about to do is against the public interest. Isn’t time we all said—as we were advised to do by the late Paddy Chayefsky in Network, to scream (and advocate) from the rooftops: we’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to let you wreck our media system anymore!

AT&T’s Project

On the heels of the defeat yesterday in the House Telecom and Internet Subcommittee (23-8) that would have helped ensure the Internet remain an open and non-discriminatory highway, it may be useful to look more closely at AT&T’s broadband plans. AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and other giants were the victors in yesterday’s defeat of the Markey “network neutrality” amendment. A number of Democrats joined with the GOP committee majority to kill off the open Internet safeguard. Just take a peak, by the way, at the end of this post to see how much cable and telecom money has been taken by some of the folks who supported the Telco/cable agenda yesterday.

But to the point about how AT&T and others are about to do the U.S. Internet great harm. AT&T (then SBC) laid out its digital vision in a September 14, 2005 document to the FCC as part of a proceeding on how “IP-Enabled Services” should be governed (“IP” meaning Internet Protocol, the basic communications structure of the Internet and many digital networks). Not surprisingly, AT&T told the FCC (on page 3) that there should be no public policies governing its “Project Lightspeed” service because it has a “architecture similar to the architecture used by customers to access the Internet.” AT&T then went on to say that its “switched, point to point, IP networks are purposefully designed and ultimately capable of allowing customers to access a wide variety of video and other content on a “on-demand basis.” The service will enable users to obtain “Internet-sourced data” and also gain access to “voice, video and data services.” (see p. 20).

But a few pages later in the 35-page document, AT&T reveals what is an outrageous policy “bait and switch” canard. While it says (on p. 24) that its “purpose in deploying this point-to-point two way network is to provide subscribers with maximum flexibility in customizing what they see and when they see it,” they also say (my bold) that “the ultimate breadth and scope of such on-demand capabilities will be a function of a number of factors, including arrangements with content owners and other programming vendors…”

In another words, the so-called Internet that AT&T will deliver us will be based on who can pay them the most money to have their content included in Lightspeed’s (video) service. AT&T is saying to the FCC and Congress: `don’t require us to have any policy safeguards, because we’re the Internet. Don’t “regulate” the Internet.’ But at the same time, AT&T is making clear (through a document only read by a few lawyers) that it doesn’t intend to give us the Internet at all—just a very profitable closed system where it can charge users and content providers ever-escalating fees. For more, read the “The Impact and Legal Propriety of Applying Cable Franchise Regulation to IP-Enabled Video Services.” [Filed by SBC. WC Docket No. 04-36, September 14, 2005].

PS: Follow the Telco-cable money to the House Telecom Subcommittee. Just look at who is contributing to Subcommittee chairman Upton; Rep. Stearns; Rep.Gonzelaz; and Rep. Wynn.

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Rep. Joe Barton and Co. destroy “Community Communications”

The Barton-Hastert-Rush bill has been concocted by telephone industry lobbyists (with some recent help by the cable industry) to remove any scintilla of oversight the public might have over broadband communications. It reflects how corrupt so many lawmakers are in the nation’s capital—and how the big money from special interests easily buys them off. It also illustrates how the same tired communications lobbying pleas–heard most recently when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed–conveniently provides political cover for a huge giveaway. Just free us from rules designed to protect the public, claim (fill in the blank) the Bells, cable, or broadcasters, and the country will be awash in jobs, better health care, and competition. These are really code words for: get ready for an even bigger monopoly over communications.

The Bells want to string out their wires in the most affluent neighborhoods of the country—all so they can profit from what they know will be a IPTV gold mine: pay-per-view movies, on-demand TV programming, and interactive advertising. They also wanted to unleash their broadband business model that will give us the pay-as-you-surf Infobahn: that’s why they oppose “network neutrality” safeguards.

However, the U.S.’s last remaining form of local control over communications—known as cable TV franchising—has stood in the way. Cable TV was supposed to be a “community communications” service. That’s the way it was sold to the U.S. back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Each community would have the ability to ensure that the powerful medium of cable broadband (yes—it was called that even back then) would serve the local public interest. Cable companies were required to negotiate an agreement with local government before they could offer service, called a franchise. This process permitted local government to obtain communications services that would be especially beneficial for their residents. So cities have been able to negotiate for their schools to be connected to the Internet. They were able to negotiate for networks that connected all their public buildings, important for city services and public safety. Finally, local franchises permitted cities to negotiate for communications services that provided for public, educational and governmental public access channels.

And it’s now about to be swept away. It was never perfect—far from it. The cable lobby used its vast resources to buy off politicians at the local, state, and national level. A system meant for local service became, as we know, primarily a medium for national programming and advertising. But the concept of local public oversight over multichannel communications services has remained an important one.

Smart communities around the country began negotiating for pieces of cable’s broadband capacity. Not just a few channels for public access, but a modest portion of bandwidth that could deliver a multitude of local digital communications services. Cities had asked for their broadband networks to be operated under an “open access” or “network neutrality” regime. More importantly, cities had the political leverage of the franchise to ensure that cable companies couldn’t “redline” against low-income neighborhoods.

The phone companies were horrified that they would actually have to provide unique public service for each of the communities they intended to pump out digital dollars from. They were frightened that local community leaders might actually be able to hold their networks accountable to serve the community. So they used their deep pockets to push through favorable state legislation and now, it appears, in the Congress (take a look at Joe Barton and Dennis Hastert’s top contributors).

We are about to lose all this, especially the important principle of community communications. It is to be replaced by a “national franchise” that doesn’t provide the public with any leverage to ensure their cities receive what should be substantial benefits in the digital age. Under the bill, communities won’t be able to obtain any help to ensure they are networked and connected. Public access “channels”—supposedly the public’s voice—won’t have the capacity to remain a vital form of communications in the broadband era. Under the proposed law, the cable industry will also be able to soon escape from their current franchises. The bill does next-to-nothing to address the dangers to the public as both the phone and cable industry transform the broadband Internet into a bigger digital gravy train (the so-called network neutrality issue).

Both the cities and the public interest community haven’t really fought the Barton bill with the ferocious opposition it requires. Some public interest groups have decided to offer a form of trade-off, mistakenly believing that they can win support for network neutrality safeguards by giving the Bells a national franchise. They are naive if they believe such a deal would occur. More importantly, we are giving away an important principle: the right of communities to ensure the public benefits from broadband communications.

It’s true that the Bell-backed lobbying effort seems unstoppable. But the concept of “community communications” is even more necessary, in my opinion, in this new era. We will be awash with all kinds of national services—and connected to international ones. But if our digital transformation isn’t designed to benefit real people where they live—what’s it good for?

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