Big Telecom Is Once Again Using Fake Consumer Groups To Attack Community Owned Broadband Networks


from the socialist-antifa-woke-takeover-of-the-internet-dot-com dept

Annoyed by the kind of expensive, shitty, slow, and spotty broadband access caused by limited competition and monopoly power, hundreds of U.S. communities have been building their own broadband networks. These networks come in a variety of forms, including direct municipal ownership, cooperatives, extensions of city-owned electrical utilities, or public private partnerships.

While there’s certainly the occasional misfire, data consistently indicates the networks they build tend to result in more broadband competition, lower prices, better customer service, and more uniform access. They also see fairly widespread, bipartisan support. Our collective disdain of shitty companies like AT&T and Comcast is one of very few subjects that can burn through all partisan barriers.

Big telecom giants like AT&T and Comcast don’t much like that. But because these networks are hugely popular, they can’t just come out and say they don’t like that. They could prevent this from being a problem by providing faster, cheaper, evenly deployed broadband, but it’s much easier and cheaper to bribe politicians into banning community broadband (see: House Republicans).

It’s also fairly inexpensive to throw money at a dodgy fake consumer interest group whose entire function is to seed lies in local communities. Charter, for example, was caught using a fake consumer group to spread distrust about community broadband in Maine. AT&T has, for years, either funded fake consumer groups or “co-opted” existing groups with malleable ethics to do the same thing.

There was a bit of a lull in this kind of activity during COVID, as undermining popular, affordable broadband access during peak plague wasn’t a great look. But big telecom has, in the last year, begun ramping back up such efforts, increasingly using, as this great Ars Technica article explores, dark money 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups who couldn’t care less about actual social welfare:

“Nonprofits registered as 501(c)(4) “social welfare organizations” are allowed to engage in some political activity. Public broadband advocates suspect that 501(c)(4) groups fighting municipal networks are funded by private ISPs. There’s evidence to support this belief: Even though 501(c)(4) groups don’t have to reveal donors, they sometimes list ISPs as “partners” or as sponsors of a conference.”

You know you have a really sound argument when you’re too afraid to make the argument as yourself (say, Verizon, AT&T, or Comcast), but instead have to create a fake consumer interest group to make your (usually false) points for you.

These campaigns were highly successful for a few years, but the annoyance many people had with substandard broadband via COVID really drove the point home that broadband monopolies are bad, and affordable broadband access should probably be viewed more like an essential utility in actual service to the public interest:

“Public broadband advocate Christopher Mitchell told Ars that when the COVID-19 pandemic made home broadband access even more important to Americans than it already was, “the cable and telephone companies lost a fair amount of their power and sway in state legislatures. Now, I kind of think they’re trying to figure out how to operate in the new environment.”

Most of the sleazy groups funded by the telecom industry have names like the “Taxpayer Protection Alliance,” and generally try to play to the inherent right wing or libertarian mistrust of government. This usually involves misrepresenting community broadband as some kind of socialist, dystopian, government takeover of the internet that always inherently results in a massive taxpayer boondoggle.

But that narrative generally falls apart once locals actually experience community broadband access, which, again, comes in a variety of forms with varying degrees of government involvement. In many areas, locals are getting symmetrical, uncapped, gigabit fiber for as little as $60 dollars a month. Owned and operated by people more directly accountable because they live down the street from you.

That’s not to say community broadband is some magical Utopian silver bullet. It requires intelligent planning, smart leaders, and savvy financing. But it’s still an organic, popular, grass roots alternative to the consolidated monopoly telecom power every American has decades of experience with. It not only delivers affordable access, it spurs local monopolies to actually try harder.

And it’s getting harder for giant telecoms to distort and twist the narrative in their favor.

Filed Under: 501(c)(4), astroturf, broadband, community broadband, competition, gigabit fiber, high speed internet, lobbying, municipal broadband, telecom

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