2014 Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

Battle for the Airwaves & Broadband


Allan Holmes, Alison Fitzgerald, John Dunbar, Chris Zubak-Skees

The Center for Public Integrity

Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom


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About the Project

Over the course of the next year, the federal government will issue rulings and conduct programs that will likely determine what telecommunications companies control the Internet and wireless communications. Who comes out on top will have control over how Americans receive the information needed to conduct their lives, including managing their health, accessing educational materials, finding jobs and services, and being able to simply communicate.

The nation’s telecommunications companies are engaged in a massive influence campaign in Washington to make sure their interests are met. The fight is a complicated one, involving arcane technologies and secret relationships aimed at influencing the outcome of policies and multi-billion-dollar mergers.

The Center for Public Integrity spent five months investigating how telecommunications companies spend money to convince federal regulators to set policies and make rulings that favor their business interests over the public interest. The result was “Battle for the airwaves,” which looked at the lobbying efforts by AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to influence the Federal Communications Commission’s upcoming auction of highly valuable wireless spectrum, and “Comcast-Time Warner deal may hinge on anemic low-cost Internet plan,” which showed how Comcast is using a program designed for low-income families to convince regulators to approve a merger that would create the largest Internet service provider in the nation.

These aren’t easy-to-understand subjects. They combine esoteric technologies and mundane government rules and reports. The reporting involved sifting through complicated government filings and records at the FCC, piecing together relationships between universities and the telecommunications companies, and accessing and manipulating data downloaded from huge government databases that hold vast information on the nation’s wireless spectrum holdings, Internet services and census data. The work can be tedious because it involves accessing thousands of pages of filings that routinely describe complicated engineering procedures and economic theories—all written in either in an academic style or turgid legalese.

To show what the theories meant to ordinary Americans, we spent weeks interviewing and visiting residents who would be affected by how the federal government rules on mergers and the spectrum holdings.

For example, Ed, an unemployed 53-year-old in Scranton, Penn., told the center that he and millions of other older people living in poverty aren’t helped by a low-cost Internet program for low-income families that Comcast is offering up as an inducement for the FCC to approve its merger with Time Warner. “The Internet today is like electricity,” Ed said. “If you don’t have it, you’re screwed.”

We also developed interactive presentations and maps to explain the complicated and arcane technology—and its impact on Americans.

For example, to show how companies influence federal rulemakers, we created a digital calendar that illustrated how often corporate lobbyists and hired influence peddlers visited the FCC. For the story about Comcast Corp.’s effort to convince the government to approve its proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable Inc., we developed an interactive map showing where low-income families lived in their service areas, an important aspect that will influence whether the FCC approves the deal.

The presentations were aimed at simplifying what is a complex subject so that readers can visualize what is involved and understand what is at stake.

The packages had an immediate impact. When the “Battle for the airwaves” posted, Ed McFadden, a spokesman for Verizon Communications, tweeted disparaging remarks about the reporter, calling him lazy and unethical. Within hours, the spokesman issued an apology. But the tweet went viral, with media critic Jim Romenesko and Mediabistro’s FishbowlDC newsletter publishing articles on about the tweet.

“We suppose McFadden was just doing his job and got a little overzealous,” FishbowlDC wrote. “Still, Holmes’ article didn’t seem lazy or unethical to us.”

The flare up simply drove more traffic to the Center’s website.

The stories’ endings haven’t been written yet. The FCC has yet to rule on Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, and the agency will hold its spectrum auction in the future. In the meantime, our reporting shines a light on how large telecommunications companies are playing the influence game, a light that may cause the FCC and lawmakers to impose rules that take into account the public’s needs.