As telecom giants seek approval for their latest mergers, millions of people without fast, reliable Internet service have become bargaining chips.
AT&T said last week that it needs to take over DirecTV in order to bring high-speed broadband to an additional 15 million mostly rural customers. Meanwhile, Comcast has pledged to extend its $10-a-month Internet service indefinitely to low-income Time Warner Cable customers if regulators allow it to merge with its small rival.
Both Comcast and AT&T have made similar promises in the past, but critics question whether they have followed through. Michael Copps, who served on the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 to 2011, said that merger promises to expand Internet access “seldom get fully satisfied.”
“People say what they need to say to get these mergers approved,” Copps told The Huffington Post last week. “There are promises that get made and I don’t think the FCC has a stellar record when following up on implementation of those conditions.”
FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart declined to comment about how the agency monitors companies’ compliance with their merger commitments.
But a HuffPost investigation in 2012 found the FCC had relied on companies to report their own merger compliance and did not conduct its own audits to verify their claims.
The FCC also did not create metrics to measure the success of Comcast’s Internet program for low-income families, a major selling point of its 2011 merger with NBC Universal, according to a recent report by the Center for Public Integrity.
The proposed deals are expected to face scrutiny from regulators whose job is to ensure that further industry consolidation doesn’t hurt competition. So telecom executives are trying to highlight how the deals would be good for consumers by pledging to help bridge the “digital divide” between those who have high-speed connections and those who don’t.
It’s a popular idea at the FCC, which has made it a priority to connect the estimated 100 million Americans who still don’t have broadband service in their homes. The FCC can’t force Internet providers to serve rural or low-income customers, but the commission has tried to achieve its goal by attaching conditions to mergers it has approved.
For example, regulators allowed AT&T’s merger with BellSouth after AT&T pledged to expand high-speed Internet service to every customer in its combined territory by the end of 2007. Edward Whitacre, AT&T’s then-chief executive, told Congress that the merger would give consumers “greater access and more choices for broadband, no matter where they live or work.”
But five years after that deadline, many residents of rural Mississippi told HuffPost they were still waiting for broadband service from AT&T, relying in the meantime on dial-up or satellite service, which they said was more expensive and less reliable than wired Internet.
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