Fed up with slow internet speeds offered by commercial services, some Maine cities and towns are turning to a new way to get high-speed broadband for their residents and businesses: doing it themselves.
Maine ranks near the bottom of all 50 states in internet speeds, which frustrates consumers and also puts a damper on business.
Legislators have submitted multiple bills this session to help municipalities build high-speed broadband networks. One bill’s title gives the flavor of many of them: “An Act To Actually Expand Rural Broadband.”
All that activity poses a threat to the state’s largest internet provider, Time Warner Cable: The more people who use a municipally-sponsored broadband service, the fewer customers available to the company.
Just as the legislative session was starting in January, Time Warner went on the offensive. It invited Maine lawmakers to an overnight “Winter Policy Conference” at a Cape Elizabeth resort, where the company tried to persuade legislators that government owned-broadband was a bad idea. The guests were served steak dinners and some were put up for the night in rooms that retail from $205 to $355 per night.
While lawmakers say they attended the event to become informed, others are not sure that legislators attending such an “educational forum,” as Time Warner called it, is in the public interest. Especially one at a resort described by its owners as designed to “surround you with every creature comfort.”
“If we want good public policy, there’s reason for all of us to be worried,” said utilities expert Gordon Weil, the state’s first Public Advocate, who represented the interests of ratepayers before regulators. Such treatment of legislators is “obviously intended to persuade them by more than the validity of the arguments; it’s intended to persuade by the reception they’re given.”
And the Time Warner event is not the only one of its type. Legislators are often invited to parties, dinners and multi-day tours paid for by interest groups.
“I think this idea of meals and conversations is how Augusta functions on some level; it’s where the lobby gets to function on some level,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who attended the event, did not stay overnight but was provided dinner and breakfast by Time Warner.
The event began the evening of Jan. 22. Representatives from Pets for Vets, a charity supported by Time Warner, gave the evening keynote presentation.
After breakfast the next day, legislators attended sessions that presented the telecommunications world as seen through the eyes of Time Warner, as well as a session featuring a panel of legislative leaders.
“It was helpful to go and get a perspective on some of those issues,” said Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, for whom Time Warner paid the cost of meals and the overnight stay. “I’m always looking at the opportunity to learn more about different things.”
How many legislators attended the conference isn’t clear.
An email from Melinda Poore, Time Warner’s chief Maine lobbyist and the event’s organizer, sent to members of the legislative leadership panel prior to the event, said “we … have maxed out the attendance.” Sen. Andre Cushing, a Republican senator from Hampden, for whom Time Warner also paid the cost of meals and the room, said he thought “about a dozen” legislators attended the Thursday night dinner. Rep. Dion said “30 or 35” attended Friday’s sessions.
What’s also not clear is whether or how many legislators brought partners or spouses to the event. Poore’s lobbying disclosure for Jan. 2013 shows that at a previous Time Warner policy conference in 2013, several lawmakers brought partners or spouses.
Poore did not respond to a request for details about the recent event. Instead, Scott Pryzwansky, Time Warner Cable’s director of public relations for the eastern U.S., responded by email, declining to answer any specific questions.
“As one of Maine’s leading employers and telecommunications companies, we designed this second biannual educational forum to help policymakers and others better understand some of the complex telecommunications issues confronting Maine and the nation,” he said. “Like many other organizations in Maine that sponsor similar forums, we believe it is our responsibility to help raise awareness about issues that are central to Maine’s economy and future.”
The Center obtained copies of materials distributed at the event from both Cushing and Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, who also attended. Hobbins’ meals and lodging were covered by Time Warner.
While there were five sessions, Espling said “broadband was probably the biggest theme.” In addition to a specific session entitled “Broadband in Maine,” attendees were given a presentation by pollster Mary Ellen Fitzgerald on a Time Warner-commissioned survey about, among other subjects, public attitudes toward broadband expansion.
That presentation concerned her, said Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who only attended Friday’s sessions.
The answers in the poll’s broadband section made it appear that a majority of the state’s taxpayers do not want to use public funds to support broadband expansion or to “subsidize public entities to compete with private businesses.” But Gideon said such results were responses to “leading” questions.
“We see lots of surveys as policymakers and we have to be smart enough to look at what questions are asked,” said Gideon.
Gideon was bothered by survey questions such as, “Should taxpayer-supported debt be used to build government-owned and operated broadband networks that sell broadband services to the public…where no broadband service currently exists…(or) broadband services are already available?”
“Nobody’s going to say ‘Yes, I want my state to incur debt,’” said Gideon.
Two New York Law School scholars also spoke to the legislators. They presented a report that asserted that, contrary to what the legislators might think, the speed of broadband available through private companies was getting faster and that government-operated networks were neither necessary nor a good public investment.
The Cape Elizabeth event for legislators fits into a larger effort by Time Warner nationally to oppose public broadband growth.
A 2014 news story, “How big telecom smothers city-run broadband,” by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalism organization, reported: “For more than a decade, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable Inc., and CenturyLink Inc. have spent millions of dollars to lobby state legislatures, influence state elections and buy research to try to stop the spread of public Internet services that often offer faster speeds at cheaper rates.”
Since 2008, Time Warner has donated more than $240,000 to Maine politicians: $127,360 to Democrats and Democratic PACs, and $113,250 to Republicans and Republican PACs.
Gideon plans to introduce legislation this session, co-sponsored by Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, to fund a planning process for communities that are considering building connections to high-speed broadband.
Freshman Rep. Norman Higgins, R-Dover-Foxcroft, has introduced legislation that would help rural communities connect to faster broadband service. His bill would foster “public-private partnerships” to get the job done.
Despite his interest in the topic, Higgins said he chose not to attend the event out of concern for how it would appear to constituents.
“I’m a new legislator and I’m trying to be very diligent about making sure that I provide an appropriate distance to meet my comfort level,” said Higgins. He said his service on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee made him especially sensitive about appearing to take favors, because it’s “the committee that Time Warner comes before on any issues that relate to their core business.”
“That was my personal decision, not a reflection on anybody else,” said Higgins.
Rep. Dion, who is co-chair of the committee, said attending the Time Warner event was “an education,” as long as he remembered “this kind of stakeholder-sponsored education seminars is very helpful if you understand that really it’s presupposing a position from that stakeholder. They don’t normally invite people who are critical of their positions.”
Weil, the former state public advocate, said that it’s a mistake to assume that other interests in the broadband issue have an equal ability to get their message across.
“The municipalities do not have corresponding resources,” said Weil.
Yet corporations like Time Warner have the right to make their case to lawmakers, said Weil.
“I would have said, ‘Fine, if you want to meet with me come meet on state facilities, no steak dinner.’
“If steak dinners didn’t work, they wouldn’t give them steak dinners,” said Weil.