Telecom Lobbyists’ Loyalties Questioned

Some lobbying groups that claim to represent consumers on telecommunications issues actually are backed by big phone and cable companies trying to push their own agendas, consumer group Common Cause said in a report issued Tuesday.

The report, “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Telecom Industry Groups and Astroturf” said groups with names such as Consumers for Cable Choice and Freedom Works are lobbying lawmakers as they consider big changes to the nation’s telecom laws.

Some groups detailed in the report run television or newspaper ads urging consumers to ask their representatives to support or oppose legislation that would affect the companies.

“These ads are very slick,” Common Cause spokeswoman Mary Boyle said. “They’re warm and fuzzy and likable. But the danger is that they’re very deceptive, and people may think they’re acting in their best interest when they’re really being urged to support something that isn’t in the public interest.”

Common Cause refers to the organizations as “Astroturf ” lobbying groups because they claim to be grass-roots operations but actually are bankrolled by companies looking for an advantage as lawmakers weigh new regulations.

One of the groups mentioned in the report, Consumers for Cable Choice, has received funding from both San Antonio-based AT&T Inc. and New York-based Verizon Communications Inc.

The group lobbies for changes in franchising rules that would make it easier for both of those companies to roll out cable-like video services.

Another, called Keep It Local New Jersey, backed by New Jersey cable companies, opposes legislation in that state to make it easier for AT&T and Verizon to enter the video market.

AT&T spokeswoman Claudia Jones said her company has funded Consumers for Cable Choice in the past but no longer provides money to it.

She said AT&T was willing to fund the group because it had similar policy goals.

“We align ourselves with these organizations because they agree with us that consumers should have a choice of video providers,” Jones said. “It’s absolutely a pro-consumer issue.”

The so-called Astroturf groups are running ads as Congress considers measures that would affect the ability of AT&T and Verizon to enter the video business.

House Republicans on Monday proposed a measure that would let the two phone giants negotiate a single national franchise to get into the phone business instead of reaching separate licensing agreements with each market they plan to serve.

Lawmakers also soon may weigh in on a contentious debate about whether broadband Internet providers, including AT&T and Verizon, can charge Web site operators additional money to speed up their sites.