Charter’s Running A Fake Consumer Group In Maine That’s Killing Community Broadband–With The Help Of A Democratic Advisor
from the astroturf-ahoy dept
For decades, entrenched U.S. regional monopolies have refused to deliver affordable, reliable, fast broadband in any sort of uniform way. That’s just kind of how monopolies work.
In response, roughly a thousand towns and cities have decided to build their own broadband networks instead, either themselves, via a local cooperative, through a city-owned utility, or in partnership with an outside private company. Instead of pre-empting such efforts by trying harder, regional monopolies have turned instead to lawsuits, dirty tricks, shitty ghost written legislation, and astroturf.
Case in point: Maine is home to a number of different popular, bipartisan community broadband efforts. But through a fake consumer group dubbed Alliance for Quality Broadband, Charter Communications (Spectrum) has been successfully scaring locals into voting against them.
The arguments are the same the industry has used for years: that community broadband is an automatic taxpayer boondoggle (false), that the U.S. broadband industry is perfectly healthy so these kinds of efforts aren’t necessary (false), and that towns and cities will fall into economic ruin if they try to fix the problem (in fact there’s billions in new infrastructure grant money for towns and cities looking to shore up access).
Spectrum, of course, holds a monopoly in many of the Maine towns and cities that are considering building new networks. It can’t just make these arguments as itself because everybody hates their local cable and broadband monopoly and knows it’s full of shit. So Charter (like AT&T and Comcast) creates fake groups with a bunch of partners to give the impression that their argument has widespread support:
But in Maine, many of the group’s purported partners, including the Maine Chamber of Commerce, were surprised to find themselves listed as members of the group:
“I wasn’t aware of the flier, or the effort, or the content,” said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, which is part of the Alliance for Quality Broadband member coalition. “I haven’t even seen it.”
The majority of Maine towns don’t require campaign finance reports for influence efforts on local referendums. So a company like Charter can come to town, spend an unlimited amount of money confusing regional voters under any number of bogus names and organizations, and there’s no real transparency or accountability for any of it.
In this instance, the Charter astroturf campaign is being run by former to Democratic advisor BJ McCollister, according to Maine Public Radio. When pressed, like any good astroturfing foot soldier, McCollister tries to downplay Charter’s involvement and makes some fleeting, feel good references to his brave and noble dedication to bridging the “digital divide.”
While community broadband has broad, bipartisan support, many such propaganda projects play into fears that community broadband is “socialism run amok.” Many such towns are already running on limited budgets, so they can’t meet a monopoly’s lobbying team on equal footing and diffuse falsehoods spread by regional monopolies.
As such, it’s not that hard for a monopoly to spend a few hundred thousand to scuttle such a vote. That’s great for them, as it saves them millions in potential competitive headaches, but it can often wind up hurting the taxpayers these bogus groups pretend to be so breathlessly concerned about:
And last week, arguments to scuttle the project proved narrowly persuasive in a town vote. Now, Southport has to eat the roughly $600,000 it paid in upfront costs, while returning a $400,000 grant it received from the state’s broadband program.
There’s a lot of grant money coming into towns and cities courtesy of COVID relief and infrastructure bills, and U.S. regional monopolies like Charter, AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and Frontier are very busy trying to ensure it all goes to them–and not any potential competitors, whatever form they take.