On August 21st, 2014, Mayor Jere Wood of Roswell, Georgia, sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission expressing emphatic support for Comcast’s controversial effort to merge with Time Warner Cable. Not only did the mayor’s letter express personal excitement for the gargantuan deal — which critics say will create a monopoly that will harm millions of consumers — but it also claimed that the entire town of Roswell adored Comcast. "When Comcast makes a promise to act, it is comforting to know that they will always follow through," Wood's letter explained. "This is the type of attitude that makes Roswell proud to be involved with such a company," the letter asserts, "our residents are happy with the services it has provided and continues to provide each day.”
Yet Wood’s letter made one key omission: Neither Wood nor anyone representing Roswell’s residents wrote his letter to the FCC. Instead, a vice president of external affairs at Comcast authored the missive word for word in Mayor Wood's voice. According to email correspondence obtained through a public records request, the Republican mayor’s office apparently added one sign-off sentence and his signature to the corporate PR document, then sent it to federal regulators on the official letterhead of Roswell, Georgia.
The letter was part of what Comcast called an "outpouring of thoughtful and positive comments" in support of the proposed mega-merger, which is now entering the final stages of federal review. Comcast asserted that the numerous letters sent by local officials expressing support for the merger displayed its broad grassroots backing. "We are especially gratified for the support of mayors and other local officials," Comcast boasted in an August 25th release, "underscoring the powerful benefits of this transaction for their cities, constituents, and customers."
Yet email records obtained by The Verge indicate that these letters are far from grassroots.
For instance, a letter sent to the FCC by a town councilman from the small community of Jupiter, Florida, was in fact largely orchestrated by some of the biggest players in corporate telecom. Not only do records show that a Comcast official sent the councilman the exact wording of the letter he would submit to the FCC, but also that finishing touches were put on the letter by a former FCC official named Rosemary Harold, who is now a partner at one of the nation’s foremost telecom law firms in Washington, DC. Comcast has enlisted Harold to help persuade her former agency to approve the proposed merger.
Working through a contact at the local chamber of commerce, Comcast furnished Roswell Mayor Jere Wood with a draft of his letter to the FCC. After adding one sign-off sentence and his signature, Wood submitted the letter to federal regulators. "Your are the best," the local chamber of commerce representative replies after Wood’s assistant notifies him that the letter has made it to the FCC.
More prominent officials with histories of receiving campaign money from Comcast — like Oregon's Democratic Secretary of State Kate Brown — also recently sent personal letters to the FCC supporting the merger.
Records obtained by The Verge show that Secretary of State Brown's letter to the agency was almost wholly written by a Comcast Government Affairs specialist. After a conversation with Brown’s staff, the Comcast official sent Brown a letter he had prewritten for her that even included her typed sign-off, name, and title. Brown’s office sent the Comcast document — containing just three sentences with new or altered language — to the FCC emblazoned with the official seal of the State of Oregon.
Since 2008, Comcast has contributed nearly $10,000 to Brown's two campaigns for secretary of state. Neither Comcast nor the state of Oregon made any attempt tell the public of the corporation’s role in authoring Brown’s letter. Brown’s communications director told The Verge that Brown was too busy to be interviewed. (Neither Wood nor Todd Wodraska, the councilman from Jupiter, Florida, accepted requests to speak to The Verge about the letters they sent the FCC. Rosemary Harold did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
On the evening of the FCC’s filing deadline, a Comcast Government Affairs director sent a draft of a letter to a city councilman in Jupiter, Florida, written in his voice. After the councilman requested the letter in PDF form, the Comcast employee sent the draft —identical to the first version — to former FCC official and telecom attorney Rosemary Harold, who polished it. Later that evening, when notified of the letter's successful filing, a Comcast vice president of Government and Regulatory Affairs & Community Investment emailed the councilman: "Thanks! Please pardon any spelling errors, I am all thumbs!"
Although Comcast is well-known for having one of corporate America’s most sophisticated armies of lobbyists, the records obtained by The Verge shed new light on just how intimate of a role these actors play in shaping what the public — and federal regulators — hear about the company from supportive government officials. A portion of Brown’s letter that was written by Comcast even provides the FCC with a case study on the company’s charitable activity at a local Portland high school. "We are proud of Roosevelt High School, which leads the way in promoting digital literacy," the letter reads. "Since 2012, every student has been assigned an iPad, and the school has been a trailblazer for instant online access to curriculums and educational tools." In the case of the Jupiter letter, the DC telecom attorney seems to have added the councilman's typed signature.
Many of the letters sent to the FCC by state and local officials bear striking resemblance to those of Brown, Wodraska, and Wood. The letters are often quick to point to Comcast’s spending on local infrastructure and its record of philanthropy. Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the governors of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Hawaii, Colorado, Maryland, and Vermont all wrote letters to the FCC regarding the merger that cite both Comcast’s Internet Essentials program — which discounts internet services to low-income customers — and past or future local investments by the company.
Critics say Comcast’s charitable giving itself has been used to buy public support. Last year, The New York Times, in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, reported that many of the civic groups and business associations that had written letters supporting Comcast’s position to the FCC during its last major merger deal had also received money from Comcast’s charitable foundation. According to The Center for Responsive Politics, Comcast has enrolled the help of well over a hundred registered lobbyists as of last year, including former Democratic US Representative Blanche Lincoln.
After a conversation with Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, a Comcast Government Affairs official sent Brown a draft of her letter supporting the merger. After making changes to three sentences of Comcast's language, Brown’s staff sent the letter to the FCC.
Former FCC Chairman Michael Copps says that, although he could often distinguish between genuine and manufactured comments sent to the agency, letters sent by local and state officials carry weight. "When a mayor of a town or a town councilman or a legislator writes in — we look at that, and if someone is of a mind already to approve something like this they might say: ‘ah-ha, see!’" says Copps, who is now an advisor at Common Cause and opposes the merger. "These letters can be consequential, there’s no question about that."
In response to a list of questions from The Verge, Comcast emphasized that it did not have final say in the substance of the letters. "We reached out to policy makers, community leaders, business groups and others across the country to detail the public interest benefits of our transaction with Time Warner Cable," Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokesperson, said in an email. "When such leaders indicate they’d like to support our transaction in public filings, we’ve provided them with information on the transaction. All filings are ultimately decided upon by the filers, not Comcast."
"It is this kind of service that I want the children in our neighborhoods to witness and be a part of."
If the FCC follows the recommendations of the letters and approves the merger, American consumers could see big changes to their broadband and cable TV services. Critics argue that the merger would give Comcast a dangerous grip on an estimated 50 percent of the United States’ high-speed broadband market, which already lacks the sort of fierce market competition that helps drive down prices and ensure quality service. The merger would hand Comcast a level of market power, according to critics, that would allow the company to jack up already-rising cable prices while making it a gatekeeper over which movies, news, and music Americans can access. Last month, a coalition of industry groups intensified opposition to the merger for fear that it will give Comcast too much leverage over things like programming choices and local advertising. And earlier this month, a conservative political action committee joined the anti-merger movement, which had hitherto been associated with more progressive-leaning figures like Senator Al Franken (D-MN).
Comcast argues that the merger will provide a greater economy of scale for it to reduce its costs and intensify its infrastructure investments in things like faster connections. One letter, signed by more than 50 mayors and largely orchestrated by Michael Nutter, the mayor of Comcast’s hometown of Philadelphia, argues the merger poses no threat to telecom competition because Comcast and Time Warner do not already compete in US cable markets. The letter also contends that the merger will in fact improve the telecom market by creating "a larger competitor in the marketplace that should bring new choices to our citizens."
"It’s sort of become an amusement park where the fake stuff outnumbers the real stuff."
For the FCC to green-light the merger, Comcast must prove that the deal would serve the public interest — no doubt a key driver of Comcast’s focus on appearing to have support from public officials. Critics say that, despite all the letters and lobbying, Comcast has yet to provide convincing evidence for this basic standard of approval.
"I think they have failed to meet their burden of persuasion that this will make life better for the average American consumer," says Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University who has written extensively about the telecom industry. "What does the average American consumer care about? They care about prices being too high. Comcast could have said this merger will lower prices and committed itself to lower prices but it has made no sign that it will do this."
Wu, who reviewed the documents obtained by The Verge, said that the new information "confirms the impression that evidence that the merger is in the ‘public interest’ is simply being manufactured."
"It’s sort of become an amusement park where the fake stuff outnumbers the real stuff," Wu says. "The fact is a lot of telecom issues are pretty obscure, they often don’t get the public very excited. So what do you do? You buy it."