On July 31, the Federal Communications Commission voted on rules that could radically change the type of Internet services and mobile devices available on cellular networks.
This issue has dominated the FCC's agenda throughout 2007, as lobbyists swarmed the agency in hopes of influencing an upcoming auction of airwaves that are ideal for high-speed wireless Internet service. In fact, in the first seven months of the year, lobbyists representing nearly 100 companies, trade associations, and other parties (think tanks and public-interest groups, for example) had nearly 600 meetings or phone conversations with agency officials on proceedings related to the January 2008 auction—far more than any other pending matter, according to an analysis by The Center for Public Integrity.
In the end, the FCC's much-anticipated decision proved to be a victory—at least in part—for Internet giant Google, which is pressing to extend its popular search, video, and mapping tools throughout the cellular industry. Such applications are often blocked by the major U.S. cellular carriers, which tightly control the kinds of devices and applications that customers may use on their networks.
Google, a relative newcomer to Washington, proved to be a formidable lobbying presence, the Center's analysis shows: From the start of the year through July 31—the day of the FCC's pivotal vote—representatives of the Silicon Valley behemoth met with or spoke by phone with commissioners, their staff members, or other agency employees about this matter at least 19 times. The firm's chief telecommunications lobbyist, Richard Whitt—a former attorney for MCI (now part of Verizon), who was hired in February and also lobbies on this issue for a handful of Google's allies—had at least 11 meetings or phone calls with the five commissioners.
But a number of Google's opponents devoted far more lobbying resources to this auction battle, the rules for which will ultimately govern billions of dollars' worth of public airwaves in the 700 MHz band—spectrum space to be vacated by broadcasters switching from analog to digital transmissions. For example, the major cellular carriers' lobbying arm, CTIA – The Wireless Association, met with or called FCC commissioners and other agency officials at least 43 times, while lobbyists for Verizon Wireless recorded 40 such contacts.
Under agency rules, a participant must file a notice of the session, which is officially called an ex parte presentation. The Center reviewed all 2007 ex parte records through July 31—a total of more than 5,000 filings.
Leading the lobbying pack on this fight for the airwaves was Frontline Wireless, a start-up that includes among its partners former FCC chairmen Reed Hundt (a Democrat) and Mark Fowler (a Republican), with at least 70 reported meetings or telephone calls. Indeed, the firm's political connections helped its lobbyists gain repeated access to the agency's inner sanctum: Hundt, Janice Obuchowski, who served as secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the first Bush administration, and Jonathan Blake, an attorney with the powerhouse law firm of Covington & Burling, each participated in a dozen or more meetings with commissioners.
But despite having unique access, and despite winning on other issues, Frontline's lobbyists failed to persuade regulators to adopt a "wholesale" provision requiring a winning licensee to resell a portion of the airwaves to third-parties and competitors—a major point of contention in the lobbying debate.
Data analysis by Assistant Database Editor Ben Welsh, who developed a system to retrieve and sort ex parte documents filed electronically with the FCC. Stokely Baksh and Andrew MacRae also contributed to this report.