Those opposing arguments are at the center of the lobbying war.
AT&T and Verizon operate some of the most powerful influence operations in Washington.
Last year AT&T doled out $15.9 million for lobbying on a range of issues, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying spending. AT&T spent the 11th largest amount of all companies that year, while Verizon ranked 18th.
T-Mobile has increased its lobbying 74 percent in the past three years since its purchase by AT&T was blocked, but at $5.2 million it remains far behind AT&T and Verizon. Sprint spent even less, $2.8 million in 2013.
The spending pays for lobbyists to visit members of Congress, or to urge them to call or write the agency. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who sits on the Judiciary Committee, sent a letter Nov. 20 to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to urge Wheeler not to institute spectrum limits.
Schumer wrote that the caps “would simply … reduce the amount of spectrum offered for auction as well as the revenue that would be generated in return” as broadcasters would choose not to put up their frequencies for sale for fear that they wouldn’t be able to get the high price that the big carriers could offer — an argument found in FCC filings submitted by AT&T, Verizon and their hired economists.
AT&T’s and Verizon’s political action committees gave Schumer a combined $18,000 between 2009 and 2013, compared with $10,000 from Sprint and T-Mobile PACs during the same period, according to CRP.
Six Republican House lawmakers — including Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC, and Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the committee’s communications and technology subcommittee — wrote FCC commissioners in April in response to the Justice Department’s filing, arguing that spectrum caps “will reduce the potential revenues from the auction and possibly cause the auction to fail.”
The six authors, who also included committee members Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee, Ed Whitfield from Kentucky, Billy Long from Missouri, and Robert Latta from Ohio, received among the largest campaign contributions in Congress from AT&T’s and Verizon’s PACs for the 2012 elections — a total of $107,000 from both carriers, according to CRP.
T-Mobile’s and Sprint’s PACs gave the group as a whole about half that much, a total of $42,000, according to the center.
Spokesman for Latta and Whitfield said AT&T’s and Verizon’s campaign donations didn’t influence the representatives’ positions on spectrum limits. The other members didn’t reply to requests for comment.
“AT&T and Verizon have put on a full-scale lobbying campaign and they’re spreading money all over town and writing op-eds,” said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the New America Foundation, which supports limits. “Each side is trying to pressure the FCC, sometimes with public letters, and sometimes with research, and equally often it’s with private phone calls.”
The spending also pays for lobbyists to visit the FCC, where they meet with the staff writing the auction rules and with commissioners who will ultimately vote on them.
Between October 2012, when the FCC issued its notice to develop rules for the incentive auctions, and Jan. 30, when the FCC held a public meeting to discuss its progress, the agency received more than 400 filings that include comments, papers, presentations and information about visits, Gary Epstein, head of the commission task force writing the auction rules, said at the Jan. 30 meeting.
The outpouring ranks the incentive auction among the most active issues at the FCC in years, said a senior FCC administrator. “It’s a lot,” the administrator said. “A whole lot.”
T-Mobile, which views the auction as a make-or-break event for the company, has been a fixture at the agency.
From October 2012 through March 13, lobbyists and executives for the company visited the FCC 36 times, and submitted 20 comments, presentations, letters and research papers for a total of 56 filings, the most of any organization or company, according to data compiled by the Center for Public Integrity.
One of the biggest complaints T-Mobile gets from customers is the inability to get access deep inside buildings, which can be alleviated with low-band spectrum, said Tim O’Regan, a spokesman for T-Mobile. “Lack of low-band spectrum is the biggest challenge T-Mobile faces,” he said. “It’s critical to the future of our network and critical for the future of the company.”
AT&T and Verizon visited the FCC 15 times each during the same period, according to the Center’s analysis, ranking the carriers as the fifth most active. Sprint met with commissioners and agency staff 11 times during the same period, which ranked it tied at 11th.
It’s not the number of FCC filings “that matters most, but rather the quality and depth of a stakeholder’s conversation and advocacy with FCC staff,” said John Taylor, a Sprint spokesman.
The Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters Coalition, a group of more than 70 television stations that support the auction, had the second most meetings with the FCC, and the National Association of Broadcasters, which may lose members if stations choose to sell their frequencies, was the third-most active group. Other organizations that have frequented the FCC’s offices in southwest D.C. the most have been the Competitive Carriers Association, a group that includes as members Sprint and T-Mobile and supports spectrum limits, and Dish Network Corp., which is considering launching its own nationwide wireless network.