Cable lobby slams Biden broadband plan, says everything is just fine already

Cable lobbyist Michael Powell speaking in front of a podium.
Enlarge / Cable lobbyist Michael Powell speaks at a conference in September 2015.
Getty Images | Larry Busacca

President Biden’s plan to expand broadband access and lower prices is, predictably, facing bitter opposition from cable companies that want to maintain the status quo.

NCTA–The Internet & Television Association, which represents Comcast, Charter, Cox, and other cable companies, argued that Biden’s plan is “a serious wrong turn.” NCTA is particularly mad that Biden wants to expand municipal broadband networks that could fill gaps where there’s no high-speed broadband from private ISPs and lower prices by providing competition to cable companies that usually dominate their regional territories.

“The White House has elected to go big on broadband infrastructure, but it risks taking a serious wrong turn in discarding decades of successful policy by suggesting that the government is better suited than private-sector technologists to build and operate the Internet,” NCTA CEO Michael Powell wrote in a statement.

Before becoming a lobbyist, Powell was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President George W. Bush. In that role, Powell led a vote in 2002 that prevented common-carrier regulation of cable Internet, with his FCC claiming that the decision would “result in better quality, lower prices, and more choices for consumers.”

Yesterday, Powell claimed that America’s broadband is just fine the way it is. Biden is “mistakenly lumping in our successful modern digital networks with our decaying roads, bridges, waterways, and electric grids,” Powell wrote. “While we have seen repeated examples of traditional infrastructure failures in recent years, America’s broadband has been a reliable workhorse as millions of Americans have worked, learned, and stayed connected from home during the pandemic. Simply put, the high caliber of our broadband networks kept millions of Americans safe and will continue to revolutionize work, healthcare, education, and more.”

USTelecom, which represents AT&T, Verizon, and other DSL and fiber providers, also claimed that things are going well and that Biden should stick with a strategy centered on private ISPs.

“Today’s broadband marketplace is also ultra-competitive, defined by increasing speeds, declining prices, new entrants and next generation technologies,” USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter said. “Congress now should prioritize affordability and accessibility solutions that are fast and smart and incentivize continued private investment to get the job done.”

Biden: “Americans pay too much for Internet service”

Biden’s plan would make a $100 billion broadband investment and, per the White House’s description, “prioritizes support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives—providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.”

Biden’s plan talks of “lifting barriers that prevent municipally owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers,” which may be a reference to overturning nearly 20 state laws that restrict the growth of municipal networks.

Biden further proposed “requiring Internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge,” an idea opposed by cable companies because they like to advertise low prices and then sock customers with bigger monthly bills by tacking on hidden fees. Biden also wants other action to lower prices, though exactly what that would be is unclear. The plan said that “the president is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to reduce Internet prices for all Americans, increase adoption in both rural and urban areas, hold providers accountable, and save taxpayer money.”

The Biden plan also said that “Americans pay too much for the Internet—much more than people in many other countries.” Further, “more than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds,” and, “in part because the United States has some of the highest broadband prices among OECD countries, millions of Americans can’t use broadband Internet even if the infrastructure exists where they live.” These problems of access and affordability are most severe in rural and tribal areas and for minority groups, the Biden plan said.

“When I say ‘affordable,’ I mean it,” Biden said in a speech yesterday. “Americans pay too much for Internet service. We’re going to drive down the price for families who have service now and make it easier for families who don’t have affordable service to be able to get it now.”

Cable lobby opposes plan to reduce prices

Powell is mad at Biden for suggesting that the government should try to lower broadband prices.

“Government does have a critical role to play in getting networks to areas that lack service and helping low-income families afford it,” Powell wrote. “However, those targeted, shared goals are not served by suggesting wrongly that the entire network is ailing and that the solution is either to prioritize government-owned networks or micromanage private networks, including the unfounded assertion that the government should be managing prices.” (Biden did not say that the government should be managing prices—his stated plan to “find a solution to reduce Internet prices for all Americans” is too vague to know what that will consist of, and requiring ISPs to clearly disclose prices wouldn’t necessarily make those prices lower.)

Powell also argued that “the rapid innovation in Internet technology and services that Americans have seen over the past two decades is the direct consequence of massive and continuing private investment in networks across the country.” While Powell touted “private investment,” he did not mention that the FCC has given billions to private ISPs since 2015 to build networks in underserved areas, and recently awarded another $9.2 billion out of a total of $20.4 billion planned.

Despite that, millions of Americans still lack access to fast and/or affordable broadband. The cable industry and Republicans have consistently worked against plans to fix those problems with municipal networks. Republicans in Congress last month proposed a nationwide ban on municipal broadband.

Small ISPs more welcoming of Biden plan

A group that represents small, rural broadband providers issued a far more positive statement about the Biden plan. “No infrastructure package would be complete without digital infrastructure, and on behalf of NTCA’s members, I want to thank President Biden for recognizing the importance of broadband access in his new American Jobs Plan,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association.

“We need to aim high and invest in efficient and scalable technologies like fiber to meet the needs not only of today’s consumers but also tomorrow’s,” Bloomfield said. By contrast, AT&T is lobbying against government-funded fiber networks in rural areas despite admitting that fiber is the most “future-proof” broadband technology.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), another lobby group representing small ISPs, issued a similarly positive statement.

“Though the digital divide is shrinking, more can and must be done to bring all Americans online. The president’s focus is right on target,” the group said. Still, the lobby group said that subsidy programs should “leverage providers already in the marketplace,” a stance that would favor existing ISPs over new municipal, nonprofit, and co-op providers.

Whereas Congressional Democrats are pushing for a symmetrical 100Mbps broadband standard that would prioritize the building of fiber networks, WISPA naturally wants funding for wireless ISPs. The group said that subsidy programs should be “truly tech-neutral,” that more spectrum should be made available to “small innovators,” and that small ISPs should get “nondiscriminatory access to physical infrastructure.”

Consumer advocates have been heaping praise on the Biden plan. “President Biden’s historic plan places a big bet on broadband that is desperately needed,” said Gigi Sohn, a consumer advocate who served in the Obama-era FCC as counselor to then-Chairman Tom Wheeler. “Refusing to repeat the mistakes of the past, which have left tens of millions of people in America unconnected, the president’s plan prioritizes ‘future proof networks,’ promotes competition by lifting state barriers on community-owned networks, requires price transparency, and pledges to tackle affordability by, among other things, addressing the high price of broadband Internet access.”