The California State Assembly is voting today on a revised net neutrality bill for the state – one that would likely create a standard that other states will adopt.
Needless to say, cable companies – who successfully lobbied to kill such rules at the federal level – are not excited about the move. In fact, the bill at the heart of it was very nearly derailed by Big Cable lobbyists earlier this year who persuaded lawmakers to pass significant changes in secret.
But SB 822, as the net neutrality bill is formally designated, came roaring back after the summer break, prompting a whole new approach by cable companies: robocalls to constituents.
The truth is that net neutrality is wildly popular among Americans who have had to live with cable company control of their television for decades and don't want the same model being applied to the internet.
So what is the best argument against that sentiment? Money, of course!
"I’m calling on behalf of the Civil Justice Association of California and the Congress of California Seniors with information about your cell phone bill," the robocall informs recipients – most of whom appear to be senior citizens and a copy of which was shared with the lawmaker behind the bill, Scott Weiner.
It goes on: "Right now your assembly member will be voting on a proposal by San Francisco politicians that could increase your cell phone bill by $30 a month and slow down your data."
The hard sell: "We can’t afford higher bills, we cannot afford slower data and we can’t afford Senate Bill 822. Tell your assembly member we can’t afford Senate Bill 822."
And the call to action: "Press 1 now to be transferred to your assembly member’s office so you can tell them to vote No on 822. Again, please press 1 now to be transferred…"
There's a lot to unpack there but first off, who are these two very nice sounding organizations, the Civil Justice Association of California and the Congress of California Seniors?
Well, you'll be surprised to hear they are not who you imagine. Unless you equate health insurance companies, oil companies, drug companies, banks and car manufacturers with civil justice.
In fact the Civil Justice Association of California is the big catch-all lobbying organization in California for every American mega-corporation you've heard of: Eli Lilly, ExxonMobil, Ford, Koch Companies, GlaxoSmithKline, Shell, State Farm and so on.
What about the Congress of California Seniors? Sounds like the kind of organization that is pushing for Medicare, new laws to protect the ageing in our society. Yep, it's two biggest members are AT&T and Verizon.
So: robocalls; phoney sounding lobbying groups. Now we hit the good part: cell phone bill increases – note: not internet access, cell phone – and slower data. Older people don't tend to be too fussed about web access or streaming video – but they are very attached to their mobile phones.
There is of course absolutely no suggestion that net neutrality rules would somehow increase cell phone bills – that is complete nonsense. And the $30 figure was pulled out of somebody's proverbial, presumably because it was just the right amount to get people to act.
The claim that net neutrality would somehow slow down data speeds is also ridiculous. Cable companies could argue that it would slow investment in new networks (although that would also be highly debatable) – but actually slow data down? Nonsense.
Anyway, the whole message then leads people to call – just press 1 – their assembly member and complain that they can't afford Senate Bill 822. And this is often a very effective strategy for two reasons: one, retired people have a lot more time on their hands and are willing to contact politicians and tell them what they think. And two, politicians actually do listen to what their constituents say – largely because they are always looking for feedback on issues. And, of course, old people vote.
We also love the addition of "a proposal by San Francisco politicians" – as if it matters where in California a lawmaker that proposes a bill comes from. You almost have to admire the subtle nod at prejudice against the sort of people that come from San Francisco. You know the sort, right?
But if you thought that the fear of raising prices was something that only works for seniors, you'd be wrong. Because on the complete flip side of the internet access industry, there is another group complaining that it is actually Big Cable that wants to increase your bills.
It's a completely different, though related, issue. In this case, Big Cable is lobbying hard at the federal level to have so-called Section 251 unbundling obligations struck from the rulebook.
A lot of smaller ISPs don't want this to happen because they rely on the rules to gain access to exchanges and so be able to sell internet access under their names to consumers.
And so a group calling itself "Bridge 2 Broadband" and comprising Mammoth, Sonic and others is lobbying to retain the rules – although seemingly only online without robocalling seniors. This group claims that "Big telecom companies like AT&T want to CUT OFF COMPETITION and RAISE PRICES."
Which, unlike the Congress of California Seniors message, is largely true. But it does aggressively skirt one point that they know wouldn't sit well with many Americans: that the federal government sets a price that big cable companies can charge while obligating them to offer access.
Big Cable unplugs Cali's draft net neutrality protections yet AGAINREAD MORE
Effectively, a provider like Sonic can insist that it resell AT&T's internet access under its own brand, and AT&T is obliged to do so and to charge a rate set by the federal government.
It's not hard to argue against this approach using free market analogies – and that is precisely what Big Cable is doing. But the truth is that large cable companies have a massive in-built advantage over others thanks to their deployed networks.
One study – paid for by the smaller ISPs – provides some evidence of the counter-argument that smaller companies use the federal rules to make money and raise their brand awareness and are then investing that money into new networks, including fiber networks, leapfrogging the established players who are just milking their current dominance.
But while Bridge 2 Broadband doesn't lie about the reality like the net neutrality lobbyists are doing in California, it doesn't go to any trouble to walk people through what Section 251 obligations actually are either.
What is telling however is that for both groups the issue of paying more for internet access is the one thing that they have identified as the core driver and fear in consumers' minds.
That is probably the case with most things in life, but it is especially relevant in the broadband market where American consumers continue to pay far too much for far too little. In a country where you can buy vast quantities of anything for ever-lower sums – CostCo springs to mind – the world of broadband stands out as a service that offers terrible quality at exorbitant prices.
So if your grandma receives a robocall warning her about rising phone bills, you now know what to do. ®