When Congress overhauled the nation’s telecommunications law in 1996, it happened only after an eight-year knock-down, drag-out battle among powerful stakeholders, including the cable and phone companies.
Today, another telecommunications lobbying slugfest looms with even more sharp-elbowed industry players, as lawmakers and federal agencies grapple with how to oversee the growing use of broadband technology.
Last week, a federal appeals court likely ensured a battle on the Hill over the matter when it issued a decision in favor of Comcast that curbed the Federal Communications Commission’s ability to crack down on companies that slow certain Web traffic.
“Without a doubt the FCC needs to have authority to keep the Internet open,” said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a key Congressional player as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.
The ruling also unleashed a torrent of criticism from Internet advocacy groups, which called for the FCC to clarify its jurisdiction over high-speed Internet providers.
This week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to address how the agency will respond to the court ruling as well as discuss his agency’s recently unveiled national broadband plan when he testifies Wednesday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. FCC officials already have indicated the ruling will affect how they do their job and their ability to usher in the broadband plan.
That plan is the FCC’s response to a host of telecom issues that the Internet age has spawned, including whether the federal government should regulate broadband speed, how to finance the expansion of the technology into rural and poor areas, how to deal with security and how to better equip emergency providers with online assistance.
As a result, the number of companies, firms and groups registered as federal lobbyists that listed broadband as an issue leapt from seven in 2000 to 324 in 2009, according to a CQ MoneyLine analysis of disclosure filings with Congress.
Aside from the typical telecommunications giants and high-tech firms, other entities such as hospitals, cities and universities have jumped on the broadband lobbying bandwagon.
The American Association of Law Libraries, the American Corn Growers Association, the California Association of Realtors and cities such as Baltimore, Baton Rouge, La., and Boise, Idaho, are among those who listed broadband as an issue last year, according to their lobbying filings.
“It is certainly true that broadband touches our lives in many more places,” said James Assey, executive vice president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Assey, who formerly served as senior Democratic counsel to the Senate Commerce panel, attributed the success of broadband to the philosophy of “regulatory humility” shown by the government.
But that view is likely to be increasingly tested as Congress considers how to implement the FCC’s broadband plan.
The fight pits old-guard telecommunications giants, with their deep and well-connected lobbying teams, against the upstart high-tech operations such as Google and Yahoo, which have smaller Washington, D.C., offices but nonetheless have influential friends on Capitol Hill and at the White House.
“There’s nothing that happens in this business without a fight,” said Art Brodsky, spokesman for Public Knowledge, an advocacy group that promotes issues such as net neutrality, the principle that carriers must give equal access to Internet content.
Meanwhile, some telecom insiders suggest that Congress needs to step in.
Tom Tauke, Verizon’s executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communications, in a recent speech at a New Democrat Network forum said, “It is clear to me that we need a fresh look at what the role of government should be in the Internet ecosystem, and specifically at the statute governing the communications industry.”
Boucher said that before legislation is developed, the various sides need to reach consensus, which would preclude approval of a bill this year.
And any legislation that beefs up FCC authority is sure to meet resistance from Congressional Republicans.
Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), ranking member on the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, has expressed wariness of government oversight of the Internet. He noted in an e-mail that 95 percent of U.S. households have access to broadband, “which tells me that the market approach to broadband deployment has been successful, and we must be careful not to hamper that deployment.”
Spectrum of Influence
Telecommunications interests are bracing for a fight over how to implement certain elements of the broadband plan, which calls for the expansion of high-speed Internet networks. To help meet that goal, it recommends that television stations return about 500 megahertz of spectrum for broadband use — a proposal the National Association of Broadcasters vigorously opposes.
“We think it is a phony choice to say it’s either broadband or broadcasting,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.
Less disputed is a provision that calls for diverting money from a fund now used to expand phone use in rural and poor areas to connecting those difficult-to-reach customers to the Internet.
Lobbyists for high-tech companies as well as public advocacy groups portray the broadband fight as a David vs. Goliath match.
Long used to being regulated, phone and cable companies have built a deep bench of in-house and outside lobbying expertise. Last year, AT&T spent $14.7 million on lobbying and contracted with 33 outside firms. During the same period, Verizon shelled out $13.1 million and hired 39 outside firms, while Comcast spent $12.5 million and used 26 outside firms for its lobbying.
By contrast, Google spent $4 million on lobbying in 2009 and contracted with seven outside firms. Yahoo spent $1.9 million on lobbying during the same period and used five outside firms. Even Microsoft, which dramatically increased its D.C. presence after facing an antitrust suit in the late 1990s, spent about half as much as Verizon on lobbying last year.
These telecommunications firms and their trade associations are also staffed by people with strong connections to Congress. Former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) is president of CTIA, while Tauke at Verizon is a former Republican Congressman from Iowa who sat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association’s chief lobbyist, Rita Lewis, was political director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and worked for former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
Josh Ackil, a partner with the Franklin Square Group, a lobbying firm that represents high-tech clients including Google, Cisco and Apple, said the large telecommunications companies have a big footprint on Capitol Hill.
“The tech industry is just trying to keep up with the pace of the providers,” said Ackil, who previously worked for the Information Technology Industry Council and the Clinton administration.
Brodsky at Public Knowledge is more blunt about the lobbying clout of the phone companies. “The phone companies are the biggest, baddest group around,” he said.
But Jot Carpenter, the vice president of government affairs for CTIA, said he “doesn’t buy for a minute” the suggestion that flush high-tech firms are at a disadvantage.
“There is nothing that is stopping them from making an investment in Washington to represent their interests,” said Carpenter, who was previously vice president of government affairs for AT&T. “If you think you need to be here, show up.”
A comparison of lobbying expenditures doesn’t tell the whole story, argued Markham Erickson, the executive director of the Open Internet Coalition and a lawyer whose clients include Google, Amazon.com, eBay and Skype.
He said Internet companies have benefited from grass-roots movement that is powered by the Internet itself. And he said the industry has powerful allies on Capitol Hill such as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Furthermore, Erickson noted that President Barack Obama, whose campaign successfully mined the Internet for grass-roots support and contributions, has championed broadband issues such as net neutrality.
“Without the Internet, Obama wouldn’t be president,” he said.
Alex Knott contributed to this report.