Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr

Employees at one of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies are being urged by their bosses to sign a petition opposing net neutrality legislation passed one week ago by the California legislature.

In an email Thursday to employees at Frontier Communications—a leading provider of internet, TV, and phone services in 29 states—West Region Senior Vice President Joe Gamble painted California’s Senate Bill 822 as a threat to Frontier and the people who work there. 

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“We are asking Governor Brown to veto a law that is bad for Frontier’s business, our partners and our employees,” wrote Gamble, according to a copy of the email leaked to Gizmodo.

S.B. 822, which seeks to reenact net neutrality protections stripped away by the Trump administration this year, must be signed or vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown by September 30.

The bill represents the most ambitious attempt yet by a state to insulate consumers from the Federal Communication Commission’s repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Act, rules that banned broadband providers such as Frontier, Verizon, and AT&T from obstructing consumer access to legal internet sites and services.

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Gamble’s email further points employees to a website that asks them to “make your voice heard” by signing a pre-written letter to the governor. The petition, which claims S.B. 822 is “unnecessary and harmful regulation that will create significant new costs for consumers,” asserts the law would significantly hinder Frontier’s ability to invest in its network infrastructure.

“I am proud to work at Frontier and help operate a network that is part of an incredibly successful Internet ecosystem that is the backbone of our economy and daily life,” the letter continues, adding that S.B. 822 will “harm consumers and impose complex layers of costly regulation.”

An email to Frontier employees on behalf of Joe Gamble, Senior Vice President, West Region.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

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The email notes participation is “entirely voluntary,” and tells employees they can sign the petition “at work or on your own time.” While the email doesn’t explicitly say S.B. 822 is a threat to anyone’s job, it does claim the bill would be “bad” for Frontier’s employees. (Digital ads paid for by CalInnovates, a nonprofit supported by AT&T, have dubiously labeled S.B. 822 a “job killer,” claiming lawmakers who support it are “risking more than 45,000 good jobs for hard-working Californians.”)

During a phone call to Gizmodo, S.B. 822's author, Senator Scott Wiener, called the Frontier letter “propaganda,” saying it mirrors false claims that have been perpetuated by astroturf campaigns since his bill was first introduced.

“Basically what they’re saying is, ‘if we’re not allowed to block websites, and have fast lanes and slow lanes, then consumer choice will go down and prices will go up,’” Wiener said. “It’s an absurd claim on its face.”

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The claim that net neutrality rules hinder broadband investment is not new. It’s been a talking point of the telecom industry, echoed by its lobbyists and supporters, for many years. Most recently, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai characterized net neutrality as “the largest deterrent to network investment” while pushing to overturn the Obama-era net neutrality rules struck down by the Republican-controlled commission in December. There’s considerable data, however, indicating the claim has no basis in reality.

In 2016, the year after the Open Internet Order vote, cable-industry network investment rose sharply, according to data collected and analyzed by advocacy group Free Press. Compared to the two years preceding the vote, the two years after saw a 48 percent increased in core network infrastructure investment. Likewise, network investments by smaller operators of cable or direct-broadcast satellite television spiked.

While lobbyists for providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Charter claimed the net neutrality order would destroy their businesses, top executives at the same companies adamantly denied any negative impacts in released transcripts of calls with their investors.

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“During the almost three years that the Obama order was in place, these companies made huge infrastructure investments and amassed huge profits and cash reserves,” said Wiener. “To say, ‘this is going to impoverish us,’ and then turn around and spend almost a $100 billion to purchase Time Warner, shows how bogus these claims are,” he added, referring to AT&T’s acquisition this year—a deal that was announced on October 22, 2016, four months after a U.S. appeals court upheld the now-repealed net neutrality order.

Of California residents most impacted by S.B. 822, according to Frontier, those in rural areas will suffer the most. In its letter to Governor Brown, the company claims the legislation will not only deter investment but delay broadband deployment in areas that “still lack high-speed Internet access.”

“To the extent they are running into challenges to extend or upgrade their network in rural California, it has literally nothing to do with net neutrality,” says Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “The challenges that face rural America are no different than the past challenges we had in promoting access to electricity, water, and the roads.”

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“We never blamed consumer protection rules in the past, but rather took on those infrastructure challenges head-on with a strong public investment,” he continued. “Until we do the same with broadband, rural Americans will continue to be left behind.”

What’s more, consumers in rural areas are often limited with regard to internet access, most having only a single option when it comes to internet providers. Ultimately, this means rural subscribers are uniquely vulnerable to discriminatory behavior by ISPs. The EFF argues these are the customers who actually need net neutrality the most.

Asked to expand on how S.B. 822 might hinder its ability to invest and grow its infrastructure, Frontier Vice President Javier Mendoza repeated the claims contained in the petition circulated to employees, telling Gizmodo via email that the company “opposes SB 822 because it will harm consumers, impose complex layers of costly state level regulation and delay broadband investment in California, especially rural areas.” Frontier, he said, has never blocked or throttled customer access to content and “has always been and remains committed to the core principles underlying net neutrality.”

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“We have invited our employees to voluntarily join us,” added Mendoza (emphasis his), “if they agree with our position and want to make their voices heard.”