WASHINGTON — In recent weeks, staff members for Bobby Rush, a Democratic congressman from Illinois, have asked fellow lawmakers to sign a letter opposing a Federal Communications Commission proposal to limit how broadband providers can share users’ personal data.
Last month, 60 lawmakers signed a separate letter voicing their objections to an FCC regulation that would open the market for cable television set-top boxes.
What the actions have in common: the financial connections and legwork of cable companies like Comcast.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, an industry lobbying group, said it had edited the letter shared by Rush’s staff. Cable industry lobbyists also helped gather the 60 signatures on the set-top-box letter; nearly all of the lawmakers who signed count cable and telecom companies as top campaign donors, according to federal disclosures.
The behind-the-scenes activity by cable companies and their industry groups is part of the biggest lobbying push by the $115 billion industry in Washington since 2009, when the government drew up its Net neutrality rules. These days, the cable and telecom industries are hiring more lobbyists, issuing warnings that they may sue federal agencies, and making speeches and writing scathing blog posts about policy makers.
The trigger? A string of proposed regulations by the FCC that have left cable companies feeling besieged.
So far this year, the agency has proposed reforming rules on set-top boxes so that people can pick any television device to receive cable and online video, which could cut into the industry’s $19.5 billion in annual set-top-box rental fees.
The FCC also unveiled broadband privacy rules that would make it harder to collect and share data on users for targeted advertising. And the agency announced a plan to force cable and telecom companies to lease bandwidth to competitors in certain areas, with potential limits on how much they can charge, curbing revenue for such deals.
“The policy blows we are weathering are not modest regulatory corrections,” Michael K. Powell, president of the NCTA, said in a speech last month. “They have been thundering, tectonic shifts.”
The cable companies’ frustration has been compounded by concerns that the FCC proposals punish them but reward tech companies like Google. The set-top-box proposal could give those companies access to cable and satellite television programming for their devices and let them track viewer habits for their ad businesses. The broadband privacy rules apply only to cable and telecom companies; tech companies are not included.
The FCC has largely adopted recommendations from Google on set-top-box reforms, the cable and telecom companies said. AT&T’s senior vice president for external affairs, Jim Cicconi, has called the plan the “Google proposal.” The cable companies also said the FCC’s broadband privacy proposal would be much stronger than any restrictions placed on Web companies.
So the cable industry has harnessed its vast lobbying resources in Washington to fight back.
In the first quarter, cable and telecom companies spent $22 million on lobbying, ranking 11th by industry, according to the OpenSecrets website, run by the Center for Responsive Politics. While the spending did not increase from a year earlier, much of the money has gone toward fighting FCC proposals like the set-top-box rules, with nearly $2 million paid just to outside lobbyists in the first quarter to work against the proposal, according to federal disclosures.
AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and the NCTA are also practicing softer forms of lobbying — such as sponsoring studies and consultants who write op-ed articles — that cannot be easily traced, analysts and public interest groups like Free Press, which supports several broadband regulations, say.
The industry’s focus has been on helping members of Congress write letters of opposition to the FCC. The association said an employee contributed “minor suggestions” to the letter from Rush. Rush’s spokeswoman, Debra Johnson, said the NCTA edits “did not change the substance of the letter” and said the congressman had a history of standing up for consumer protection.
The cable industry has also responded with a new lobbying group, the Future of TV Coalition, which has been joined by media and movie companies as well as labor unions. It was formed on the day the FCC announced the set-top-box proposal. So far, the organization has helped generate 300,000 comments opposing the set-top-box plan through a tool on its website that sends complaints directly to the FCC.