One of Florida’s largest wireless carriers, AT&T, appears to be working overtime on the expansion of rural broadband internet service, but not in a way residents in Florida’s smaller towns might want. The work has little to do with helping rural residents stream Netflix in glorious 4k, and everything to do with influencing state lawmakers who are working to set up Florida’s Broadband Opportunity Program which will play a role in awarding millions of dollars in grants to broadband providers like AT&T who meet certain criteria.
It’s the establishment of those criteria that has AT&T working overtime.
No fewer than seven lobbying firms representing AT&T have appeared before lawmakers in recent weeks, seeking to influence everything from a controversial utility pole attachment bill to the rules and regulations governing grants from the federal government that are expected to total $20.4 billion over the next decade. Florida’s share of that is roughly $121 million this year alone, which is ample motivation for AT&T and others to influence the wording of HB 753 that will establish a regulatory structure for the grant money.
Of the 93 registered lobbyist meetings with lawmakers on HB 753, AT&T’s lobbying army accounts for more than a third of those appearances.
Critics say the federal and state funds used to incentivize rural broadband is fueling a gold rush by broadband providers to claim a share of billions of dollars in federal funding, and AT&T has been accused of not delivering what they promised.
With so much cash riding on how broadband is defined and the standards that govern rural deployments, the stakes for AT&T couldn’t be higher.
Last September, Mississippi’s Public Service Commission filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) alleging AT&T took over $283 million in federal funding but didn’t deploy the required broadband service in Mississippi.
In a press release, a member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission pulled no punches:
“AT&T Mississippi has submitted information regarding internet service to Mississippians that was funded by the Connect America Fund that they know is false. Our investigation has revealed a wide-array of inconsistencies in what AT&T advertises as available and what actually exists when consumers try to get internet service. All the while, AT&T has submitted data saying that they have used federal funds to bring internet service to these specific homes,” Mississippi Commissioner Brandon Presley said. “AT&T knows, for a fact, that information that they have provided regarding where their internet service exists is false. They know that through their own, internal records. It’s imperative that the FCC and other appropriate federal agencies work with us to hold them accountable.”
An attorney for AT&T called the complaint “unfounded” and blamed the problem on isolated instances of terrain or ground clutter that prevented AT&T’s equipment from functioning properly, or preventing broadband installation altogether.
Yet only months earlier, AT&T also admitted it provided false broadband coverage data to the FCC that impacted 20 states, including Florida. The data initially showed that AT&T had delivered broadband to rural areas that were actually impossible to reach with their technology. While AT&T did self-report the problems, blaming them on a number of factors, the company had already been paid a federal subsidy to deploy broadband to those areas.
In addition to the importance of ensuring accountability with HB753, lawmakers are also closely eyeing a pair of utility pole attachment bills (HB 1239 and HB 1567) that could impact the rural broadband deployment program. Both of those bills have already cleared a handful of legislative committees. Critics say HB 1239 needs to be tightened up significantly to avoid becoming another giveaway to cable and wireless internet providers, which could take advantage of the bill to attach broadband equipment to poles they don’t own in more lucrative areas of the state with more customers, while at the same time neglecting rural deployments.
The second bill, HB 1567, seeks to place all utility pole regulation into the hands of the Florida Public Service Commission, which currently has no authority to regulate telephone poles owned by phone companies, or to ensure those poles can withstand hurricane strength winds. Under Florida law, that responsibility currently falls to the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C. The bill seeks to clear up a jurisdictional mess and improve the survivability of Florida’s communications infrastructure. Florida’s utility companies have invested billions of dollars to upgrade power poles to better withstand hurricanes and keep electricity flowing to storm-stricken communities, and the bill would require telecom providers to reimburse utilities to for attaching telecom equipment to utility poles that meet those higher standards.