Civil Rights Groups and Telecom Watchdogs Split On Mobile Merger

The NAACP and Urban League have said the deal is good for people of color. But media justice advocates insist it'll threaten equal access and drive up costs--and they charge civil rights groups are selling out.

By Jamilah King Jun 17, 2011

Several national civil rights organizations are under intense scrutiny this week amid allegations that they’re supporting a controversial AT&T merger with T-Mobile in exchange for the company’s financial support.

The news comes as debate over mobile broadband’s future continues to heat up. AT&T announced its plans to buy T-Mobile for $39 billion this spring, a move that would combine two of the nation’s largest mobile carriers. If the merger was approved, AT&T and its leading competitor, Verizon, would control 70 percent of the mobile market. The implications for communities of color could be huge. A 2010 Pew study showed that black and Latino mobile users are phoning across the digital divide; cell phone ownership is higher among black and Latino users and it’s often the primary way they access the Internet.

With the deadline for public comments quickly approaching, the debate over who’s taking which side–and why–has become contentious.

Who’s signed on, and what they’re arguing:

Monday, June 20, is the deadline to submit public comments with the FCC. And so far, comments both for and against the merger have been received in droves, with over 1,500 submitted as of Friday morning. Among those who’ve issued letters in support of the merger are the NAACP, GLAAD, National Urban League, and the Hispanic Federation. They each argue that the merger will lead to more jobs for black and Latino workers. But more importantly, they argue that the merger will lead to faster expansion of mobile broadband networks to areas that are currently underserved.

Who’s opposing the merger, and why:

Several consumer and civil rights groups have come out strongly against the merger. Groups including Free Press and argue that the merger will destroy jobs, raise mobile prices and threaten network neutrality–the recently formalized rule that makes it illegal for companies to unfairly control online traffic, making some sites move faster than other.

"Our communities are struggling enough financially, so this is going to make it harder for folks to get affordable prices, " said Joe Torres, senior advisor at Free Press. "These groups that support the merger are going to be seen on the wrong side of history."

Allegations of astroturfing:

Are the groups who back the deal simply going along with the comapny that bankrolls its programs? Last week Eliza Krigman at Politico suggested that was the case. Krigman reported that in 2009, AT&T gave $62 million in support to arts and education programs and charities. Those organizations include the NAACP, GLAAD, and the National Education Association.The company is proud of its philanthropic efforts, and the recipients say it has nothing to do with their stance on policy issues.

"One of the unique things about the NAACP is that financial support does not determine our civil rights positions," William Barber, head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, told Politico.

Opponents have voiced suspicions that AT&T may actually be providing template language for organizations to use in their support of the merger. "The evidence of coordination is clear. The groups that support the merger use strikingly similar arguments to support their decision–and sometimes have used identical language. In letters to the FCC by the National Action Network and National Urban League, several sentences and an entire paragraph are exactly the same," wrote in a campaign email to its supporters on Thursday.

These suspicions of telecom buying support aren’t new. Last fall Jennifer Martinez reported for the Los Angeles Times that telecom companies, including AT&T and Comcast, had poured millions of dollars in donations into community groups to help win approvals for mergers and get rid of old regulations.

The companies, however, deny any wrongdoing.

"I can tell you we do not, and have not ever, given money to minority organizations so that they will support our positions on any topic," Peter Thonis, a spokesman for Verizon Communications Inc., told the Times. "We talk to many groups about our positions, and some agree with us and some do not."