Big internet service providers have committed billions of dollars to the cause of closing the digital divide in recent years. But these firms’ charity is also a tool for turning beneficiaries into allies in crucial internet policy debates currently underway in Washington, Sacramento and in statehouses and local governments nationwide.
Massive telecom firms like AT&T, the world’s largest, and Comcast, the largest media company in the U.S. and owner of NBCUniversal, have doubled down on corporate charity just as their near total market domination faces new challenges. AT&T recently announced an unprecedented $2 billion commitment over two years. Comcast announced last year that it would spend $1 billion over the next decade, and Charter Spectrum has pledged $8 million.
Their giving targets nonprofits that teach digital skills, distribute laptops and tablets, set up computer labs in areas where people need them and help people sign up for federal internet benefits.
In California, for example, the state’s $6 billion infrastructure plan could fund local governments and smaller firms to build networks connecting the unconnected and those who lack fast reliable internet, as well as introducing competition in areas where prices and services are subpar.
An additional $42.45 billion in federal infrastructure funding allocated to increasing broadband access and digital equity is expected to be distributed to the states next year.
Sure, large internet service providers (ISPs) have boatloads of campaign cash and phalanxes of lobbyists to weigh in on how the money should be spent, by whom and under what rules. But giving to nonprofits buys the companies influence with grassroots groups on the ground when local issues come up.
Last year, Los Angeles County began considering whether to tap incoming state and federal funds to establish its own broadband networks. Big telecom opposes the idea of municipal broadband so strongly that it is restricted in 18 states, critics charge, due to lobbying by the companies.
But Charter Spectrum, the area’s biggest ISP, didn’t speak out publicly on the issue. Instead, it asked at least one of its beneficiaries to do so: Last spring, Ana Teresa Dahan, managing director of GPSN, a nonprofit aimed at improving public education in Los Angeles, said a colleague from a related nonprofit organization approached her to sign on to a Charter Spectrum-authored op-ed.
“They were making that ask when they do their annual giving,” Dahan said, adding that it was not a quid pro quo, but that the request seemed to be leveraged with a donation. Entitled “A Call to Action: Close L.A.’s Digital Divide Once and for All,” the editorial was aimed at discrediting public broadband.
“It appears some prefer to spend a decade building out high-risk, duplicative infrastructure rather than provide direct subsidies to low-income families. This is not surprising as modernizing our social safety-net has always been fraught with stigma,” the piece read in part.
“It’s such gaslighting,” Dahan said, noting the self-interest of the corporation in promoting federal internet subsidies as the main way to close the digital gap. Dahan declined to sign on and dissuaded her colleague from doing so. The $30 per month federal broadband benefit the article touts, she noted, goes directly into the coffers of the ISPs. There is no guarantee such low income subsidies will be available long term to those who need them, as the federal Affordable Connectivity Program was funded by the 2021 infrastructure bill.
Charter Spectrum spokesman Dennis Johnson didn’t confirm or deny that a company rep wrote the piece. In a statement to Capital & Main, Johnson wrote that the company backs a range of solutions to the digital equity gap:
“Charter has long been committed to increasing connectivity by addressing broadband access, adoption and affordability barriers: from ongoing private investment to extend and upgrade our networks and technology, to provide fast and reliable broadband products at great value, to addressing affordability and adoption barriers.”