Reporters ripped for muni broadband stories. Is Comcast behind it?

by Steve Blum • , , ,

A “visiting scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute (and a member of Donald Trump’s “landing team” at the Federal Communications Commission) has taken to trash talking writers and publications that reported on a recent municipal broadband study (I haven’t yet – it’s on my to do list). The resemblance to a Comcast-sponsored astroturfing campaign is noteworthy.

Roslyn Layton joined Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison as volunteers assigned to help cobble together telecoms policy and overhaul the Obama-era FCC. All three are affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a consulting group – think tank in Beltway speak – that serves right-of-center and industry interests.

Writing in Forbes, Layton tees off on a study done by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society that concluded that muni broadband systems “generally charge less for entry-level broadband service than do competing private providers, and don’t use initial low ‘teaser’ rates that sharply rise months later”. She spends little effort critiquing its merits. Layton’s ire is directed at publications that dared to report on the findings and, in her view, failed to properly excoriate it.

For the editor of one of those publications, Daniel Frankel at FierceCable, the attack brought to mind a 2014 campaign by AEI to discredit network neutrality policy, an effort that was linked to Comcast

At the time, Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice conceded to the [Washington Post] that the cable operator “has worked with most of the major think tanks in town who are interested in communications issues," including the Aspen Institute, the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. She didn’t go into further detail.

I reached out to Fitzmaurice to see if she could provide any update on Comcast’s relationship with AEI. Is it now working with them on municipal broadband, an issue Comcast has stridently contested in markets including Seattle and Denver? I’m still waiting to hear back.

Layton told Frankel that “Comcast didn’t influence her column” and claimed to have “little to no knowledge” of where AEI gets the money it pays her. But that doesn’t mean that Comcast isn’t still in AEI’s decision making loop.

By their nature, astroturfing campaigns – where a company uses unidentified front organisations to push its agenda – are difficult to unmask. Absent a smoking gun, companies who engage in it don’t offer straightforward answers.

But Frankel is asking the right questions.

I make my living helping communities improve broadband infrastructure and service, including, at times, developing municipal broadband projects. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.