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Telecom stranglehold: 2020 candidates vow greater web access, but corporate lobbies stand in the way

Telecom stranglehold: 2020 candidates vow greater web access, but corporate lobbies stand in the way
As decision 2020 draws closer, presidential candidates are vowing to address the woefully inadequate internet services offered across much of rural America – but an army of telecom lobbyists could render their efforts meaningless.

Democratic candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is among the latest to roll out a plan to bring much-needed web connection to America’s internet-poor communities, promising on Wednesday to devote $85 million in grants to finance local government projects around the country. She is joined by fellow Democratic Party candidates Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar, who have put forward similar programs.

Thirty-one percent of American households currently lack access to a broadband internet connection, which is defined by download speeds in excess of 25 megabits per second, according to a recent study published by NPD Connected Intelligence, a data analysis firm.

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It remains to be seen whether the multi-million dollar proposals put forward by Warren or any of the other 2020 hopefuls will solve the growing problem, but what’s clear is the increasing stranglehold internet service providers (ISPs) have over local, state and federal legislatures.

Firm grip in the states

Numbers compiled by consumer watchdog Comparitech indicate the telecommunications industry poured over $1 billion into lobbying members of Congress between 1998 and 2018, while ISPs spent some $80 million on their lobbying efforts last year alone, the most spent in any single year to date.

In one emblematic case in Tennessee, Chattanooga’s municipally-owned and wildly successful internet and power company, EPB, sought to expand its broadband network to underserved areas outside the city’s limits, but the company ran into a 1999 law preventing it from doing so. Pushed through by telecom lobbyists at the time, the bill was meant to protect the territory from cable TV providers, but it erected roadblocks for efforts to expand internet access in the state. Though EPB petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and received a waiver to bypass the 1999 law, the state government counter-sued and won the case.

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Instead of allowing EPB to move ahead with its plan – which would have been self-financed and required no taxpayer subsidy – Tennessee lawmakers decided to hand the project to telecom titans AT&T and Comcast, through the “Broadband Accessibility Act of 2017,” in exchange for $45 million in tax breaks.

Tennessee is no outlier; similar laws restricting or outright barring local municipalities from providing internet services exist in some 21 states, often to the benefit of the largest ISPs, which loathe the prospect of increased competition. Many localities simply lack the funds and legal resources to raise effective challenges to those laws in the courts and, in some cases, are no match for deep-pocketed telecom corporations who fight back.

Roadmaps to nowhere

A current $20 billion federal initiative to see broadband internet access introduced to rural communities across the US was nearly sabotaged by the same powerful ISPs.

As part of that initiative, the FCC relies on industry to supply service maps to determine which areas require the most urgent attention, but, as the agency itself acknowledged, the maps provided have been shoddy and inaccurate. A recent policy change will require companies to base their mapping on a different metric, which the FCC hopes will result in more accurate data, but had the faulty maps gone unnoticed, thousands, even millions, of Americans may have been left behind in the internet Stone Age, with an unbearably slow or a non-existent web connection.

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While FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has heralded the new data-collection scheme as a significant improvement over the prior model, some critical consumer advocates argue the FCC is still vesting internet providers with too much trust.

“There’s no mechanism for meaningful accountability,” Sascha Meinrath, a telecommunications expert at Pennsylvania State University, told InsideSources. “You get to self-report data. There’s a huge incentive to over-report that data, and there’s no meaningful detriment for doing so. ISPs are never going to provide accurate and precise information if they are incentivized to do otherwise.”

Whether the new data will enhance the FCC’s ability to map internet-starved communities is an open question, but the case only highlights the obstacles in front of lawmakers and presidential aspirants in beating back the grip of telecoms over government agencies at the highest level.

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