Charter, Comcast Continue to Dominate State Grant Awards

While cooperatives, utilities, and municipalities are seeing a welcome portion of Covid relief and infrastructure bill funding, the nation’s two biggest cable broadband monopolies continue to hoover up the lion’s share of most new broadband infrastructure grants. 

All told, the American Rescue Plan Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will deliver more than $50 billion in new funding for broadband infrastructure. And while cooperatives and utilities have been big winners in states like Tennessee, a recent breakdown by Fierce Telecom of money awarded so far shows that cable monopolies have been the biggest winners by far. 

As of September, Charter (which sells service under the Spectrum brand) had won more than $170.8 million in grants across Ohio ($51 million), Kentucky ($49.9 million) Indiana ($27 million), Georgia ($12.2 million), Maryland ($8.5 million), Louisiana ($7.88 million), Alabama ($7.26 million), Wisconsin ($5.9 million) and Pennsylvania ($1.2 million).

Charter is also poised to haul in roughly half of all grants awarded by Montana’s grant program, Connect MT. The disproportionate awards raised the hackles of smaller operators trying to compete with Charter for a limited pool of resources. A similar story is playing out in North Carolina, where Charter was just awarded an undisclosed total for 21 state contracts

Charter’s also dominating Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) funding. To date, 54 percent of winning RDOF bids have been authorized, with Charter nabbing $1.2 billion of the nearly $5 billion in awards doled out so far. 

At the same time, Comcast had nabbed $121.6 million in broadband grants across Delaware, West Virginia ($22.3 million), Maryland ($17.4 million), Indiana ($13.5 million), Alabama ($11.3 million), Louisiana ($10.1 million), Ohio ($9.4 million) and Pennsylvania ($4.5 million).

Track Record of Anti-Competitive Behavior  

Both companies would be quick to say they’re receiving the lion’s share of the funds because they’re best positioned to help federal and state authorities bridge the digital divide.

But U.S. telecom monopolies have a long history of failing to uniformly expand broadband access, fighting competitive reform, hoovering up the lion’s share of federal and state funding to fix a problem they helped create, opposing better broadband maps that might expose the width of the problem, and failing to live up to many deployment promises.

Both Comcast and Charter also have a long history of tilting the regulatory apparatus in their favor, ensuring the lion’s share of new broadband funding lands in their back pocket, and not in the bank accounts of more disruptive, local competitors.

Back in July, we explored how Charter was filing numerous, onerous, and costly challenges against local municipalities applying for NTIA grants, often using unreliable FCC mapping data to falsely claim many target areas were already served. Numerous municipalities say they lack the funding or expertise to counter-challenge the claims — the entire point.

A similar story is playing out in Washington State, where Comcast is also leaning on unreliable FCC mapping data to falsely claim community broadband improvements are duplicative.

There, the company is again exploiting a murky state grant application and challenge process to try and derail absolutely any competitive effort to challenge its monopoly power.

Elsewhere, incumbent giants have lobbied state governments to pass new laws specifically designed to ensure taxpayer grant funding can’t go to municipal, utility, or cooperative competition, in potential violation of clear federal funding guidance. 

Even monopoly power hasn’t protected giants like Comcast from falling subscriber counts as they face a scattered infusion of new competitors ranging from local city-owned utilities inspired by Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber network, to a growing array of fixed-5G wireless solutions. ILSR data shows that despite this, 83 million Americans remain locked under a broadband monopoly.

Both companies have responded to competitive challenges by nickel-and-diming captive subscribers further, whether it’s Comcast’s decision last week to force users to use Comcast hardware if they want to obtain new upstream speed upgrades, or Charter’s decision to impose significant new price hikes on 9.5 million captive subscribers

Both companies hope that a massive infusion of taxpayer money can help counter or slow subscriber losses, while their political influence aims to ensure the lion’s share of funds steer well clear of smaller ISPs and municipal competitors. 

Inline image of Monopoly Man courtesy of Flickr user Mike Mozart, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)