By Kim Hart - 10/22/09 10:00 AM EDT
AT&T is seeking to block a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposal that could shape the way content is shared on the Internet and is pulling out all the stops with a lobbying blitz ahead of a critical vote Thursday.
The nation’s largest phone company, known for its lobbying prowess in Washington, has been a vocal opponent of so-called net neutrality rules, which would prohibit Internet providers from giving preferential treatment to certain types of Web traffic.
But network operators AT&T, Verizon and Comcast say they need to manage Internet traffic to keep services running smoothly to all subscribers.
In their corner are Republican lawmakers who worry that placing any regulations on the Internet will deter private investment in broadband networks needed to expand high-speed service across the country — another priority for the administration.
While net neutrality started out as a partisan fight, AT&T has managed to win over 72 House Democrats, with nearly half of the Congressional Black Caucus on board with the company’s objection.
A big part of the company’s opposition strategy has been to spur minority groups to write letters echoing the concerns raised by Republicans. And the primary target of the grassroots campaign is the daughter of the third-most powerful House Democrat, who happens to sit on the FCC.
But AT&T disputes the idea that letters from lawmakers and constituents are the result of lobbying.
“The special interest groups seem to be implying that all the people who have raised questions of the FCC’s proposal to change the existing framework are uninformed and are not voicing legitimate concerns,” an AT&T spokesman said in an e-mail. “If you read the hundreds of letters submitted to the FCC, you’ll see that they focus on the potential impact new policies will have on jobs and this country’s economic recovery — two areas in which this industry plays a vital role.”
The long-running debate reached a fever pitch this week as the FCC prepares to vote on a notice that would put the net neutrality proposal up for more debate. While Thursday’s vote is an early step in the formal rulemaking process, AT&T intensified its efforts to derail it by launching a letter-writing campaign from company employees, as well as from community organizations, state officials and minority groups.
AT&T also sent a memo to employee last weekend encouraging them to get friends and family to send e-mails objecting to the proposal.
“AT&T is running the standard Washington game they play better than anyone,” said Marvin Ammori, general counsel at Free Press, a prominent advocate of the open-Internet regulations. “They hire lots of lobbyists and PR firms and are getting their talking points out there every way they can.”
Verizon and Comcast have also been active in lobbying against Internet regulation, as have the major trade groups representing the cable and wireless industries. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rep. Joe Barton, both Texas Republicans and the ranking members on the Senate and House Commerce committees, respectively, have sent letters to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski arguing that regulation will reduce investment in the broadband industry that is already thriving.
Staffers at the FCC and on Capitol Hill say AT&T has been the most aggressive company in the lobbying battle.
An analysis of campaign and political action committee contribution data shows that all but two of those six dozen lawmakers received funding from the phone company. The letter helped spark a flurry of responses from both sides of the issue.
AT&T has focused the bulk of its efforts on the FCC, which needs three votes to approve the notice of the rulemaking. In his confirmation hearing, Genachowski made clear he was in favor of open-Internet rules. Senior Democratic Commissioner Michael J. Copps has long been a proponent of the rules.
Republican Commissioners Robert McDowell and Meredith Atwell Baker are against heavy-handed government intervention in the Internet.
The company is hoping to convince the newest Democratic commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, to change her mind. Clyburn, the daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), is expected to vote for the measure, but she has been the prime target of AT&T’s lobbying effort, a staffer said.
The younger Clyburn has a background in utilities rather than telecommunications, and her ties to South Carolina, which historically has been AT&T territory, has created a perception that she can be swayed on the issue, industry sources said.
A source close to Mignon Clyburn said her position has not changed. The source indicated Clyburn has faced a great deal of pressure from a variety of groups and has been dismayed by some of the tactics employed to influence her position, which she has maintained since her confirmation hearing.
More than 400 letters were filed with the FCC over the past week, including letters from South Carolina-based entities such as Claflin University, Allen University and the Cherokee County Development Board. The letters included the same line: “Thousands of South Carolinians have jobs and millions of investment dollars are in this state because of existing government policies that encourage competition in telecommunications while assuring open access to the Internet.”