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2015 Topical Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

The Broadband Industry Beat

Finalist(s)
Allan Holmes, Chris Zubak-Skees

Organization
The Center for Public Integrity

Award
Topical Reporting, Small Newsroom

Program
2015

Entry Links
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About the Project

The nation’s telecommunications companies, whose networks are the backbone of the U.S. economy and how Americans run their everyday lives, are among the most wealthy and powerful in the world. By controlling the networks over which Americans’ information flows, they shape how we make decisions and how society is structured. But few Americans know that, and even fewer know about how the corporations led by AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable work government institutions to defend profits.

That’s why the Center for Public Integrity’s Allan Holmes built a beat to cover how the broadband industry really works. The beat doesn’t intend to break daily news in the traditional sense. Rather, we break news on what telecoms are doing behind the scenes to influence what is in the news. The result illuminates how money and influence form policies, who wins and who loses, and why. These enterprise stories are complex, and require time and attention to clarity and simplicity, without compromising accuracy.

Some stories are pegged to major news events in the broadband industry during the past year and were the result of months of research, digging through government databases and regulatory filings, and dozens of interviews. You could call it beat reporting on steroids.

In “U.S. Internet users pay more and have fewer choices than Europeans,” Holmes and Center news developer Chris Zubak-Skees teamed up to tell a powerful story through strong reporting—and show it through nuanced data visualizations.

Some U.S. cities can claim they have as many as five companies offering high-speed Internet service to their residents. In reality most Americans have a choice of only one or two telecommunications companies for fast service. Holmes, senior reporter, and Zubak-Skees, news developer, used National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) data to map broadband coverage in five U.S. cities. The results show how companies appear to divide up territory and avoid competition.

They also plotted broadband prices of five cities in the United States in conjunction with five comparable cities in France. They found U.S. Internet companies charge prices for high-speed broadband that are up to three times higher than those charged by providers in France. The cities were of similar size, with similar population densities, meaning the companies’ infrastructure costs should be comparable. Prices were higher in the U.S. cities for almost every speed offered.

The piece shows with clarity the relative lack of competition in the U.S. broadband market, and the effect that has on which services are offered at what price. In most of the cities the team profiled, using maps and data graphics, any individual consumer has a choice of two providers for wired broadband Internet. In many cases, though, the choice is between a DSL provider (which may or may not be rolling out fiber coverage in that city) and a cable provider.

In “How big telecom smothers city-run broadband,” they took readers inside the fight between Big Telecom and towns that want to build their own networks. Holmes compiled IRS forms posted on Guidestar.com that showed who funded groups conducting work on behalf of the telecoms. He analyzed data from the campaign and lobby spending databases run by the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute for Money in State Politics to show who took the most money from telecom.

To illustrate how the service from telecom providers was more expensive and slower than public networks, Holmes and Zubak-Skees built a database of prices and speeds from various telecom providers in the state. The comparisons required dozens of calls and online searches, but with this information, they built an interactive map of the broadband footprints in the state and added price and speed data for the cities with municipal fiber. To make download speeds real to readers, tiny simulated download bars animate across the screen in the graphic.

The Center breaks news on this beat. “Chattanooga wants feds to pre-empt broadband ban” is one example. And, also provides context as in the online radio interview, “Behind the municipal broadband battle.”

Ultimately, our beat reporting is telling the story of how our nation’s biggest telecommunications companies influence the “Internet business” to their benefit and not the public’s. It’s a beat that the other outlets rarely take to this depth. But it matters for how we live and who succeeds and who doesn’t.