Presidential candidate Marco Rubio was among a handful of fellow legislators that scolded the FCC for a February attempt to improve broadband competition. As we’ve noted for years, incumbent ISPs like AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable have literally bought and written roughly 20 state laws that hinder or outright prohibit towns and cities from building their own broadband networks, even in cases where a private ISP refuses to upgrade or even serve them.
After years of ignoring what can only be called protectionism, the FCC earlier this year finally voted to take aim at two such laws in North Carolina and Tennessee. The FCC stated the laws (again, written by ISPs and pushed via ALEC) interfere with the agency’s Congressional mandate to ensure even broadband deployment.
Rubio, a recipient of significant AT&T campaign cash, was one of eight lawmakers to fire off a letter to the FCC (pdf) this week scolding the agency for standing up to the industry’s telecom giants:
…The FCC is promoting government-owned networks at the possible expense of private sector broadband providers — both incumbents and competitors — who have made strides to deploy networks throughout the country. Municipal broadband networks not only run the risk of overbuilding existing private networks, they could also result in the loss of limited universal service funds for carriers who are delivering broadband to rural Americans. The FCC should not be in the business of choosing winners and losers in the competitive broadband marketplace.
Except that’s simply not true. It’s the protectionist state laws that “choose winners and losers” by not only preventing towns and cities from deciding their own fate, but from in some instances banning them from even partnering with private companies. And while the Senate’s municipal broadband opponents claim to simply be worried about equality and states rights, The Intercept this week make Rubio’s motivation and ties to AT&T abundantly clear:
Rubio’s presidential campaign has relied heavily on AT&T lobbyist Scott Weaver, the public policy co-chair of Wiley Rein, a law firm that also is helping to litigate against the FCC’s effort to help municipal broadband. As one of Rubio’s three lobbyist-bundlers, Weaver raised $33,324 for Rubio’s presidential campaign, according to disclosures.Rubio’s campaign fundraising apparatus is also managed in part by Cesar Conda, a lobbyist who previously served as Rubio’s chief of staff. Registration documents show that Conda now represents AT&T.
So while a lot of lip service is paid to concern about states’ rights and even broadband coverage, the real goal is to punish the FCC for its utterly uncharacteristic decision to stand up to lobbying giants like AT&T this year. Sadly the issue (like net neutrality) is framed as a partisan one despite there being nothing partisan about local citizens having a say in their own infrastructure future. Meanwhile, ISPs brought this upon themselves by refusing to deliver the kinds of faster, cheaper services many of these towns have spent a decade begging for.
Last month we noted how AT&T has effectively conned the press into believing the telecom giant is engaged in a massive gigabit fiber to the home build, despite the fact that the company’s CAPEX and fixed-line network investment budget continues to drop. In reality, AT&T’s singling out high-end developments and universities (where fiber is already in the ground) for highly selective gigabit service, then declaring an entire market “launched.”
The resulting, gushing press lets the company appear to be keeping pace with operations like Google Fiber and municipal broadband options. But when customers in these “launched” markets actually try to sign up for service, they’ll often find themselves disappointed.Case in point is Gaston County, North Carolina, where AT&T loudly announced it had launched gigabit service back in August. As we’ve seen in so many markets however, locals there are increasingly confused as to why they don’t qualify for service, a question AT&T (for obvious reasons) doesn’t want to clearly answer:
So exactly where is it available now? And why at this house, but not that one? And how long might it take to extend elsewhere?AT&T isn’t providing those types of answers. “Our network is a complex organism,” AT&T spokesman Josh Gelinas said.
…Gelinas said there’s no quick and easy explanation for why the fiber-optic connection is already in place in some specific addresses, but not others. AT&T doesn’t want to get into discussions about where it has existing fiber-optic corridors, he said.
“Part of what drives the expansion is where we already have our existing network in place and where it makes good business sense to expand,” he said.
And, when you’re actually trimming your fixed-line broadband investment budget year after year, the places “where it makes good business sense to expand” are the places it costs virtually no money to connect. AT&T insiders familiar with AT&T’s Gigapower deployment plans tell me that for many Gigapower markets, “launched” can quite literally mean just a few homes in a development community on a hill.Privately, AT&T techs often candidly tell customers the same thing: their chances of ever getting gigabit fiber are slim to none.
That’s not to say AT&T’s not working hard in a handful of areas where competition has forced their hand. There’s certainly select pockets — like Austin and the North Carolina triangle — where AT&T can quite visibly be seen working hard to keep pace with Google Fiber and municipal broadband deployments. But by and large Gigapower remains a hollow show pony in the majority of less competitive AT&T broadband markets, propped up by AT&T math (TM) and an easily duped press.
And cherry picking the most lucrative locations for fiber all makes sense from a business perspective, though it’s important to remember AT&T and Verizon alone have received enough federal and state subsidies over the last few decades to wire the entire country with fiber to the home several times over (sadly nobody’s done an audit, and with the two companies’ collective political power, nobody ever will).
Again, the company’s dropping CAPEX and investment budget numbers (already dominated by wireless) are the tell tale sign that AT&T’s gigabit deployment is a tiny fraction of the size it’s being portrayed as in marketing materials. You’ll know AT&T is serious about gigabit fiber for “up to 100” markets when earnings reports and filings show it’s actually paying for it.