Time and time again we’re told by incumbent ISPs that if lawmakers give them “X,” we’ll soon be awash in all manner of miraculous network investment and job creation. Sometimes “X” is an acquisition, as when AT&T promised to magically increase competition if it was allowed to remove T-Mobile from the marketplace. Often “X” is broad deregulation. Other times it’s significant regulation of they other guy. Sometimes it’s just subsidies. Lately we’ve been told that if we only don’t apply net neutrality rules, we’ll be awash in amazing network investment and next-generation broadband in no time.
Of course, if you stop and actually pay attention, time and time again you’ll shockingly find that these repeated telecom Utopias never arrive, and by giving your favorite lumbering telecom duopolist everything it wants, things generally only get worse. Deregulate AT&T broadly in California under promise that you’ll see lower rates and greater competition, for example, and watch miraculously how things actually get worse (and nobody wants to talk about it). AT&T’s currently telling state lawmakers that if they gut all regulations requiring it maintain DSL and POTS networks (so AT&T can hang up on users it doesn’t want to upgrade) we’ll soon be awash in the technology miracles of tomorrow. Downgrades are upgrades, you see.
“X” is also all-too-frequently tax breaks and incentives. You might recall that Verizon promised the States of New Jersey and Pennsylvania it would deliver fiber broadband to every home in exchange for billions in tax cuts. After getting the incentives Verizon simply threw money at the States, and a decade later both States were willing to forget Verizon’s obligations entirely.
Similarly, the Wall Street Journal recently dug through the history books, and found that bonus depreciation — imposed as part of the 2008 Stimulus Act and pushed for by the telcos to spur job creation and investment — also never delivered the goods. Essentially an interest-free loan that lets companies defer tax obligations, the Journal notes that, once again, the promised job growth and investment spikes never actually happened:
“But that isn’t how it has worked, at least at AT&T and Verizon, whose vast networks of towers and cables make them two of the country’s biggest investors in infrastructure. AT&T estimated its federal tax bill last year at $3 billion, down from about $5.9 billion in 2007, before the tax relief was enacted. Verizon estimated that it would get $197 million back last year, compared with a 2007 bill of $2.6 billion. Meanwhile, the companies have kept their capital spending relatively flat since the stimulus was adopted, and their employee count has dropped by more than 100,000 people, a fifth of their combined work forces.”
This was, the Journal notes, despite studies years earlier clearly illustrating that bonus depreciation didn’t really work, though AT&T (as it does with everything) is threatening reduced investment if the policies aren’t extended. While wireless spending remains strong, the Journal fails to note that AT&T’s fixed-line investment has actually been dropping significantly — even while the company pretends to be expanding gigabit fiber to get its DirecTV acquisition approved by regulators. It’s a never-ending cycle of bluffing and bullshit, and at some point you’d think we’d stop and realize that maybe just giving lumbering, pampered duopolists absolutely everything they want may not be the quickest path to telecom nirvana.