(Special to The Root) — It seems the telecom industry is nervous that its days of simply informing the government how it prefers to conduct its own affairs may finally be numbered. With current Federal Communications Commission Chair Julius Genachowski reported to be stepping down, and buzz building around a potential nominee likely to serve as a much more rigorous public advocate, Big Telecom is ramping up its PR machine to warn us of the danger of informed, effective government oversight.
ColorOfChange members have seen this all before, when we organized to stop the FCC from rubber-stamping what would have been a disastrous merger between AT&T and T-Mobile. Here's what the telecoms don't want you to know:
The FCC's landmark "open Internet rules" ensure that fixed broadband providers — the AT&Ts, Comcasts and Verizons that run DSL, cable or fiber into your home or office — can't censor your access to the Web. Specifically, fixed broadband providers can't block sites they'd rather you not visit, and they can't favor one Web user's network traffic over another (for example, by slowing a site's load time).
These open Internet rules represent a critical win for consumers, who for the most part have no real choice when it comes to selecting a broadband provider — and thus no choice about the quality of broadband service we receive. Every monthly cable bill is a fresh reminder of how a lack of competition keeps us tied to underperforming, unresponsive telecom monopolies primarily dedicated to price-gouging their customers. Without the FCC serving as a watchdog — protecting our right to all access the same Web, no matter what telecom market we live in — broadband providers would be working overtime finding new ways to charge us even more for even less.
We don't have to look far for proof. AT&T Wireless — which, due to an ill-conceived political compromise by the FCC, isn't subject to the same strict open Internet rules as AT&T's fixed broadband division — is a prime example of such aggressive hostage-taking behavior. This past spring, AT&T Wireless announced it had invented a way to get paid twice for providing the same service, by charging both data subscribers and Netflix for making Netflix content available on AT&T smartphones. This scheme creates new barriers to access for competitors of Netflix and other preferred apps, managing to both restrict subscribers' content choices and stifle developer innovation.
Not content to stop there, AT&T then proceeded to openly violate the one FCC rule that does speak directly to wireless providers — it blocked access to FaceTime, an iPhone video-calling app that competes with AT&T's own voice services.
Slapped with an FCC complaint, AT&T opted to double-down yet again. The company now claims that no part of its business — not wireless, not fixed broadband — is subject to any government oversight whatsoever. Essentially, AT&T is asserting that it has the right to determine for itself what we see and do on the Internet, in whatever manner the company deems fit. (Verizon has actually filed a federal lawsuit to this effect, asserting a First Amendment right to absolute control over the transmission of information over its network; critics have rightly pointed out that a ruling in Verizon's favor would negate the First Amendment rights of its millions of subscribers.)
In light of Big Telecom's evident disdain for the experience of its customers, the quality of its product and even the basic tenets of free-market enterprise, it's remarkable that the industry's recent PR efforts spend so many column inches touting the importance of competition and innovation. More remarkable still is the industry's straight-faced insistence that it is "government regulation" — and not Big Telecom's own dysfunctional, corrupt business practices — that is to blame for the sorry state of broadband deployment in this country.
Telecoms have spent the better part of the past two decades collecting hundreds of billions of dollars in tacked-on fees and rate increases — approved by state governments and paid by us — for the explicit purpose of upgrading every home's old copper phone wiring to lightning-fast fiber. Today, fiber is only available in 42 communities; for that matter, 34 percent of Americans — and a full 46 percent of African Americans — still don't have high-speed Internet in our homes, period. So what did AT&T and company do with all our money? Apparently, they lined their own pockets, appropriating huge sums for executive pay and overseas investments.
Big Telecom is working frantically to deflect responsibility for the outcomes of its dirty dealing. It incessantly repeats complaints of unspecified "government regulation" to anyone who'll listen, hoping we'll buy that an industry raking in billions in public handouts is actually a victim of government overzealousness. And in doing so, the industry is trying to engineer an even bigger scam: AT&T and Verizon's push to completely remove any vestige of FCC oversight from their business dealings is the biggest threat to the open Internet we've seen yet. If the FCC is barred from keeping an eye on these habitual bad actors, online free speech and our broader freedom to connect are in grave danger; entrenching the telecoms' monopoly status would only incentivize more high prices and finally doom any expectation of real infrastructure investment.
ColorOfChange members know well Big Telecom's pattern of manipulating the facts in order to maximize economic gain. When more than 73,000 of us took action to expose AT&T's deceptive merger proposal in 2011, the company's own lawyers ultimately confirmed that AT&T had fundamentally misled Congress, regulators and the public. At the time, a number of civil rights groups and leaders went along with AT&T's prepared talking points because they didn't think they'd be held accountable for the industry's casual relationship with the truth. Today, we should all know better.
Rashad Robinson is the executive director of ColorOfChange.org. With more than 850,000 members, ColorOfChange.org is the nation's largest black online civil-rights organization.
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