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.
"It gives me heartburn," Tyrone Ellis, the former chairman of Mississippi's public utilities committee, told HuffPost in 2012. "They didn't follow through."
AT&T insists it met those obligations. An AT&T spokeswoman said this week that the company's current plans to offer high-speed fiber connections to 2 million new customers and wireless to 13 million more "simply would not be possible" if it does not merge with DirecTV.
"We look forward to showing the FCC that this expansion is a merger-specific consumer benefit," the spokeswoman said.
But some critics note that AT&T had already announced plans to expand broadband service weeks before announcing the deal.
"AT&T is pretending that mostly wireless upgrades they already planned to make (or have made already) are new deployments that will only come if the DirecTV deal is approved," Karl Bode, a telecom analyst, wrote last week on his blog DSL Reports.
Comcast's 2011 merger with NBC Universal was another major deal approved on the condition that the resulting company would help more people get online. With that aim in mind, Comcast launched a program called Internet Essentials, which offers discounted computers and $10-a-month broadband service to low-income families.
Comcast executive vice president David Cohen, who leads the company's lobbying efforts, once told The Washington Post that he came up with the idea for the Internet Essentials program two years before announcing Comcast's bid to acquire NBC Universal -- but, he said, "I held back because I knew it may be the type of voluntary commitment that would be attractive" to the FCC chairman.
Comcast says that Internet Essentials has been a success, with about 300,000 people having signed up since 2012.
"I'm not aware of any other program that exists, from the federal government, from state government, from local government or from nonprofits, that has done more to close the digital divide in past two and a half years than what Comcast has done," Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas told HuffPost.
But those 300,000 people make up just 12 percent of families who are eligible for the program, according to the Center for Public Integrity. And only 2.6 million of the 7.2 million low-income families in Comcast's service area qualify for Internet Essentials, because it requires them to have a child who is eligible for the federal school lunch program, the center found.
Comcast's Internet Essentials program "excludes a huge part of those on the wrong side of the digital divide," the center concluded.
Copps, the former FCC commissioner, said he wasn't surprised that merger promises have disappointed some consumer advocates. Pledging to expand Internet access may help the latest mergers get approved, said Copps, but the FCC will need to ensure that companies keep their promises.
"Mark me down as skeptical," he said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to David Cohen as a lobbyist. His title at Comcast is executive vice president, and he is not officially registered with the government as a lobbyist.
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