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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.

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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 benefitthe 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.”

Last November, when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted on establishing a county-owned broadband network, Charter Spectrum did not weigh in, but two nonprofits, the Bay Area-based National Diversity Coalition and the National Asian American Coalition, did. Both groups list Charter Spectrum and T-Mobile as sponsors on their website.

The board considered three proposals:

  • a campaign to urge eligible Angelenos to sign up for federal broadband subsidies
  • a public-private partnership to build county-owned broadband networks in Watts, Pico-Union, Sun Valley and other communities where many households remain unconnected, and
  • studying the feasibility of building a county-owned fiber infrastructure to deliver fast state of the art internet to residents

The NDC’s and NAAC’s identical missives to the board argued that “the track record on public broadband projects is littered with failures and wasted resources.” Both letters closed by saying “Should you have any questions, please contact (NAME) at (EMAIL) or (PHONE),” suggesting the groups’ representatives hadn’t fully filled in the blanks before signing form letters they didn’t compose themselves.

The National Diversity Coalition, whose mission is to advocate for “greater opportunity, financial equality and economic empowerment for the diverse, minority and low-to-moderate income communities,” regularly participates in California Public Utilities Commission proceedings, filing comments that are often supportive of telecom positions.

The two organizations share a single CEO, Faith Bautista, who recently served on a U.S. Treasury Department advisory board as a Trump administration appointee. Bautista also serves on Charter Spectrum’s diversity equity and inclusion council and hosts a show called “Owning a Piece of America” on Charter Spectrum’s cable channel. Both organizations list their funders as “restricted” on their publicly available tax forms. Bautista didn’t return Capital & Main’s calls regarding the organizations’ stance on broadband in L.A. County.

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But Bautista did address the board of supervisors last November, urging them to adopt only the plan to promote federal internet subsidies for low-income people while not commenting on the public broadband proposals. She emphasized wide support for her position, saying, “We probably have a hundred letters.”

The board received 37 such letters; eight came from the organizations’ staff or board members and their families, and some were alike in their wording and fonts. Eleven of those correspondents hailed from affluent communities like Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach or West Hills where nearly all households have broadband connections at home.

Recent, similar efforts to quash municipal broadband around the country that have appeared to be broad-based or have grassroots origins in Missouri and Maine have actually been spearheaded by nonprofits or political committees backed by ISPs, while Charter Spectrum and Comcast has openly opposed such efforts in Brownsville, Texas, and Baltimore.

In L.A., the NDC and the NAAC failed to block the Board of Supervisors’ plan to build county-owned broadband. But Charter Spectrum, which opposed the plan behind the scenes, could still end up profiting from it. In March, the county issued a Request for Qualifications, seeking private firms to build and manage its neighborhood networks.

On Aug. 31, county officials announced that AT&T and T-Mobile are qualified bidders along with seven smaller firms. Charter has raised objections to the process, but could still submit its qualifications, which the county will accept on a rolling basis.

Meanwhile public broadband is on the agenda in Monterey, Alpine and Santa Clara Counties.

At AT&T’s El Segundo headquarters, Vice President for External Affairs Lupita Sanchez Cornejo said the company’s efforts to close the digital divide are aimed at helping families, not furthering AT&T’s policy agenda. Sanchez Cornejo recently helped open two computer labs at community centers operated by L.A. nonprofits. “Our focus is on the digital divide and the homework gap,” she said, referring to the divide between kids who can complete online assignments at home and those who lack the connections and equipment to do so.

But the companies — however sincere they are about helping communities get connected to the internet — also seek support from their beneficiaries, whose on-the-ground work lends them credibility.

“They’re so good at their job they almost convince me,” said Emma Hernandez, CEO of the Southeast Community Development Corporation, of the telecom reps who donate to her group and their talking points.

In a modest community center in the city of Bell, Hernandez has created a makerspace like the ones in upscale parts of Silicon Valley or Santa Monica, minus the $70 per month membership fees, slick interiors and craft coffee. In August, just before school began, a group of students — ages 11-17 — were planning to write, storyboard and film a virtual reality documentary tour of the center. There are Lego robots and a programmable sewing machine that embroiders logos and designs, a ham radio, a soldering station and a 360 degree camera for making virtual reality films and headsets for watching them, all in a community where one in five households remains unconnected to the internet at home.

Recently a telecom rep tried to enlist the SCDC to help defeat a bill, AB 2751 (authored by Coachella Democrat Eduardo Garcia), that would have required telecom companies that do business with the state to offer $40 per month internet service to all their customers.

However, Garcia’s bill made sense to Hernandez, and the SCDC backed it.

“We do get money from ISPs, and I say this to the ISPs: I work for my community. I grew up in the area, and I’m here to serve.”

But for some organizations, taking a stand that could alienate an industry donor is a risk because the money supports digital equity work, and fundraising is time consuming and competitive.

“The whole thing makes me feel uncomfortable,” said Kami Griffiths, who directs the San Francisco-based Community Tech Network. “I need to realize power needs to be shifted. If I keep being subdued in this way, I can’t be an effective advocate.”

Griffiths’ group teaches digital equity skills at senior centers, housing developments and libraries.

Meanwhile, as many more internet policy issues come before the state and city governments, Ana Teresa Dahan said corporate giving can create “a chilling effect” in which nonprofits fear alienating their donors. Some people will remain silent. “They say, ‘I’m just going to stay out of it,’” Dahan said.

Griffiths’ hope is that current federal broadband funding — $2.75 billion is earmarked for digital equity programs — will make corporate and foundation fundraising less urgent. As it stands now, “It’s like you’re always walking a tightrope,” she said.

This article was originally published on Capital & Main.