AT&T Gets Loyal Lawmakers To Push A Broadband Tax For 'Big Tech'
from the you're not helping dept
Hoping to capitalize on legitimate animosity against “big tech,” AT&T lobbyists and policy makers have been busy recirculating a fifteen-year-old talking point. Namely, that big tech companies should throw billions of dollars at big telecom companies to subsidize their broadband deployments. The argument that AT&T has been pushing since 2004 or so is that since big tech companies get a “free ride” on telecom networks (which has never been true), they should pay telecom giants billions of additional dollars… just because.
The argument never made any coherent sense. Tech giants like Netflix and Google pay not only billions of dollars for bandwidth, they also spend billions of additional dollars on cloud, transit, undersea cable, CDN, and other broadband infrastructure. U.S. consumers and businesses alike also pay an arm and a leg for bandwidth courtesy of limited competition. When it comes to U.S. telecom, nobody gets a free ride.
Telecom giants like AT&T also invest billions of dollars in telecom infrastructure. But they also receive billions upon billions in taxpayer subsidies, dubious tax breaks, and regulatory favors in exchange for network upgrades that are always mysteriously half-delivered. There’s not a day that goes by where some telecom company isn’t getting ridiculous sums of money for projects that don’t make sense or simply never get deployed. So if you were serious about reforming the FCC’s USF or subsidy systems used to expand broadband access, that would be the place to start.
Instead, AT&T has asked captured regulators like FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr to push for a broadband tax on tech giants. Carr recently pushed the idea in a an editorial over in a Newsweek Op/Ed, and since then outlets from CNET to Axios have been parroting the idea as if it’s a good faith effort. It’s not. It’s an AT&T policy and lobbying missive being dressed up as a legitimate idea by corrupt lawmakers and regulators.
Now, Senators Roger Wicker, Shelley Moore Capito, and Todd Young have introduced a doomed bit of legislation dubbed the Funding Affordable Internet with Reliable (FAIR) Contributions Act. It too suggests that “big tech” has gotten a “free ride” on US telecom networks and should be subject to a new tax to fund broadband deployments:
“For too long, Big Tech has been able to profit off of the critical infrastructure used for common day-to-day activities while not helping at a sufficient level to improve those capabilities with broadband investment in states like West Virginia. With communications platforms moving away from telephone networks toward internet heavy platforms, it?s important now more than ever that we start looking at ways that Big Tech can step up and help close the digital divide and secure true universal service for West Virginians.”
Again, the gross irony here is that for the better part of twenty years, West Virginian lawmakers have been in persistent thrall to regional telecom monopoly Frontier Communications. This generally involves doing everything the telecom giant asks, then throwing billions in unaccountable subsidies at the company in exchange for jack shit. The same problem is repeating itself in most states across America. So to come out and suggest the country’s broadband shortcomings are Google’s, Netflix’s, or Amazon’s responsibility to fund and fix is fairly laughable.
Our broken and corrupt telecom regulatory approach is precisely why US broadband is so expensive, patchy, and slow by global standards. Yet you’ll note that the AT&T loyal Republicans (and some Democrats) pushing this stuff never acknowledge the need for reform of the telecom industry and the subsidies we throw its direction. They’re usually not even capable of acknowledging the sector has any problems.
Josh Hawley and friends have spent several years hyperventilating over “big tech monopolies” but rarely (if ever) acknowledge the problems with regional telecom or energy monopolies. They’re using legitimate concerns about “big tech” to push policies of interest to “big telecom.” But with very few exceptions, the modern GOP is genuinely not interested in fixing any problems. They’re interested in keeping campaign contributions from the likes of Comcast and AT&T flowing. And their only interest in “big tech” is finding leverage that will force them to carry race-baiting disinformation, a cornerstone of modern GOP power.
That’s not to say “big tech” doesn’t have ample problems that need fixing. It’s also not to say that the subsidy and FCC funding mechanisms propping up our feeble broadband efforts aren’t in dire need of reform. But this “big tech gets a free ride and therefore should throw billions at the telecom industry” is not a serious argument, and anybody treating it as such hasn’t been paying attention to more than fifteen years of telecom history. If you want to fix the US broadband industry and improve service the path is obvious: tackle regional monopolization and the corruption that enables and protects it.