Telecom group spends big to raise industry profile

The lobbying expenditures of the U.S. Telecom Association (USTA) have risen almost as fast as the TVs that soar through roofs in the group’s ubiquitous ad campaign.

Five years ago, USTA spent just over $2 million on lobbying. By last year that figure had risen to nearly $17 million, making the group the sixth biggest spender on K Street and a major contributor to a revival of telecom and high-tech lobbying.

“What our members have sought to do is to have a trade association whose political influence matches its influence on the economy,” said USTA President and CEO Walter McCormick, who was hired in 2001 to restructure the venerable organization, which has origins that date back more than a century.

USTA’s open-wallet policy is somewhat typical of the industry. Lobbying expenditures in the telecommunications and high-tech sector, always a substantial revenue source for K Street, are up almost across the board as telecom reform takes center stage on Capitol Hill.

Fights over “network neutrality” — a somewhat subjective term used to describe the debate over whether companies that own the Internet infrastructure, the fiber-optic cables, for example, can charge Web companies for access — have prompted the creation of new coalitions and a hiring boom on K Street.

Ali Amirhooshmand, a former policy adviser to House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), said the telecom-reform debate has sparked a mini-renaissance among the high-tech lobbying community.

“After the bubble melted, a lot of companies decreased their staffs,” said Amirhooshmand, who has benefited from the upturn. He is now a lobbyist at Cassidy & Associates, where his clients include AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth. “Now there is more money being spent.”

Search engine Google hired its first lobbyists in the past year. Internet phone provider Vonage spent more $1.4 million last year, after spending less than $300,000 in 2004, according to recent registration records.

Cable giant Comcast, often at odds with policies advocated by USTA, spent nearly $4 million on lobbying in 2005; in 2001 it spent just over $800,000.

But no one is spending more than USTA. There are some signs that it’s money well-spent.

The House may vote on a telecom-reform package this week that would make it easier for USTA members, in particular the large so-called “baby bells,” to provide television service through its phone lines, the subject of the group’s “future faster” ad campaign.

A broader Senate reform bill also includes “national franchise” language, which would allow phone companies to provide TV content without having to apply for individual, local franchises, which would take years to accomplish.

With its new office on 14th Street, which includes twin flat-screen TVs and water falling over the group’s name, set on a granite fa