A critical discourse analysis of how the telecommunications industry influenced VoIP deregulation legislation in 36 states
First Monday

A critical discourse analysis of how the telecommunications industry influenced VoIP deregulation legislation in 36 states by Gwen Shaffer



Abstract
About 36 U.S. states have enacted legislation that eliminates or reduces the authority of local and state agencies to regulate voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephone services. This study draws on critical discourse analysis to examine how lawmakers and telecommunications providers associated widely supported policy goals — including job creation, technological innovation, consumer protection, digital equity and modernization — with less government oversight of phone and broadband services. The discourse surrounding passage of VoIP deregulation provides key insights into how the telecommunications industry, and legislative sponsors of the bills, adopted culturally symbolic phrases and touted populist goals to legitimize policies that weaken consumer protections. Ultimately, these policy frames — found within the dialogues and texts presented to various audiences — shape the rules and regulations governing a technology integral to daily life.

Contents

Introduction
What is VoIP?
Political influences, public perceptions, and regulatory realities
Theoretical framework and methodology
Findings and discussion
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

This paper examines discourse surrounding legislative measures deregulating voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) services, which carry voice calls over a broadband connection rather than over a standard analog phone line. Specifically, this study explores how the U.S. telecommunications industry routinely portrayed these 36 proposals as necessary for job creation, digital equity, technological innovation, and the modernization of telecommunications policies — despite a lack of evidence to support these claims. The discursive frames surrounding VoIP deregulation legislation provide key insights into how the telecommunications industry, and legislative sponsors of the bills, adopted culturally symbolic phrases and touted populist goals to legitimize policies that weaken consumer protections. Ultimately, these policy frames — found within the dialogues and texts presented to various audiences — shape the rules and regulations governing a technology integral to daily life. Deregulation proponents have characterized the state house successes as a harbinger of federal policy. A director at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) said the prevalence of state-level VoIP deregulation is “a clarion call” for the U.S. Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reform the Communications Act, and that state bills are “showing the federal government a possible way forward on communications law” (Hendel, 2013).

Recent studies examine the technical aspects of VoIP services, ranging from phone call quality to security (Bahaweres, et al., 2015; Jang and Kim, 2011). Another body of research considers how the FCC classifies VoIP services, and the impact of regulations on the VoIP market and network competition (Tangerås and Tåg, 2016; Cherry, 2015; Frieden, 2015). There is also quantitative research revealing the shift away from analog calls to VoIP (Bloomberg and Luke, 2015; U. S. FCC, 2014; IBISWorld, 2017). However, no existing body of scholarship examines the implications of state-level VoIP policies. This study begins to fill that gap. It is hoped that these findings inform the growing debate over how, if at all, regulatory agencies should exercise authority over IP-enabled services.

Telecommunications policy is characterized by a series of struggles involving technology, money, political power, cultural meaning, and social values. Between 2009 and July 2015, about 36 U.S. states passed or introduced legislation that eliminates or reduces the authority of local and state agencies to regulate VoIP telephone services (Lichtenberg, 2015; Lichtenberg, personal communication), which transmit voice communications digitally. Some deregulation measures go so far as to bar state public utility commissions (PUCs) from oversight of any “IP-enabled” services. Given that IP is the fundamental protocol for transmitting data packets across the Internet, the potential reach of the legislation is enormous — which explains the intense interest from both industry and consumer advocates. In fact, California’s IP deregulation bill was one of the most heavily lobbied measures in the state during 2012 (Modesto Bee, 2012).

Critical discourse analysis was used to examine language used in 36 state-level VoIP deregulation measures. Additionally, the author analyzed texts that industry stakeholders used in the spheres of media and politics to advance the legislation. These texts include press releases, hearing testimony, blog posts and editorials originating from VoIP deregulation proponents — primarily industry funded think tanks, corporate lobbyists, trade associations, and lawmakers. The findings show that industry stakeholders consistently associated the deregulation of phone and broadband services with widely supported political economic goals. Specifically, the telecommunications industry framed less government oversight as a catalyst for job creation; technological innovation; digital equity; and modernization. These policy frames clash with the reality that VoIP deregulation weakens consumer protections and, potentially, decreases competition.

The remainder of this article explores these issues in depth. The following sections detail the technology bringing about this shift from analog to IP phone service and the political factors hastening change. The next sections of the article explain the theoretical and methodological framework, as well as the research questions, guiding the study. Subsequent sections focus on the dominant policy frames identified by the researcher, and discussion of these findings.

 

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What is VoIP?

Telephone network technology is changing, and IP is ushering in that change. This has created an opening for the telecommunications industry to encourage state legislatures to alter the rules — with massive implications for consumers, telephone carriers and even the national communications network. The FCC is responsible for overall regulation of telephone networks. But state legislatures grant PUCs the authority to promulgate and enforce rules, such as whether telecom companies must provide basic connectivity or link to 911. As landline, wireless and cable companies offer a broader array of services, and increasingly compete with one another, state legislatures are assessing the need for PUC oversight of these companies (Lichtenberg, 2013). Lawmakers in dozens of states have sponsored model legislation drafted by ALEC. These bills chip away at consumer protections, including quality of service; price controls; public safety standards; and resolution of customer complaints (Flocks, 2012; Crawford, 2012; Toney, 2012; Greenlining, 2012).

Cell phones and Internet-based phone transmission — which relies on both cable and fiber lines — are displacing copper wires. In fact, 51 percent of all U.S. households do not subscribe to a traditional landline at all (Rand Corp., 2016), and VoIP subscriptions increased at a compound annual growth rate of 13 percent between 2012 and 2015 (U. S. FCC, 2016). Subscribers to the old public switched telephone network may not realize it, but VoIP technology is used to complete most of their calls, as well. In some areas, incumbent phone companies are involuntarily switching customers to VoIP. Most notably, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Verizon replaced damaged copper network infrastructure with wireless phone systems in towns throughout New York and New Jersey (Lobosco, 2013). In June 2012 Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said he had “a vision” to “kill the copper” across the country (Bode, 2012). Incumbent phone and cable companies have seized on this move to IP technologies as an opportunity to urge lawmakers to eliminate obligations associated with their status as “carriers of last resort.” Although minimal differences exist between IP and traditional time division multiplex technologies, AT&T and Verizon are using technology features to justify entirely distinct regulatory (or deregulatory) regimes [1].

This study argues that state-level VoIP deregulation laws are based on a false pretense. VoIP works by converting analog voice calls into packets of data. The packets travel like other types of data, such as e-mail and videos, over the public Internet or any private network (Cisco, 2014). However, a protocol structures how information is carried over the wires — it does not replace the wires. VoIP still flows over a core infrastructure that includes towers, as well as the backhaul from those towers, into the network. And this core, wired infrastructure is increasingly controlled by an oligopoly — a few cable companies, and incumbent phone carriers AT&T and Verizon (Crawford, 2012). So while video streaming, gaming, navigation, instant messaging, and even Web sites may fall into the category of IP-enabled services, they all travel over a set of wires.

Industry distortions of telecommunications policy

Language is not only a means to communicate or to represent reality, but also to generate it (Bakhtin, 1981). Meanings, interpretations, understandings, and imaginaries are each the product of language. Discourse is a collection of perceptions and ideas “through which meaning is given to social and physical phenomenon, and which is produced and reproduced through an identifiable set of practices” [2]. In van Dijk’s (2000) analysis of British Parliamentary debates, critical discourse analysis (CDA) showed how lawmakers use “fallacies” [3] to support their claims. Similarly, the telecommunications industry has demonstrated a pattern of furthering its own interests by disseminating message frames that misrepresent reality. For instance, when the FCC adopted its 2015 Open Internet Order, industry coalitions characterized net neutrality as a “government takeover” of the Internet (American Commitment, 2015; United for an Open Internet, 2015; Ahlert, 2015). In practice, the rules ensure ISPs provide equal access to all content and applications. Another example of deceptive framing emerged when Comcast and Time Warner Cable executives presented a proposed US$45 billion merger as an opportunity to “increase competition” (Hattem, 2014; Cohen, 2014; Guardino, 2014). The companies pushed this notion, even as economists warned of the potential for vertical integration to choke competition between distributors and programmers (Grimes, 2014; Gelles, 2014; Krugman, 2014). More recently, the FCC floated a proposal that would make it easier for pay-tv subscribers to connect their own set-top boxes to these video services. Telecom companies claim the plan will stifle innovation (Hess, 2016; Polke, 2016), despite conflicting historical evidence. The FCC’s Carterphone decision, allowing any device to connect to the phone network, is credited with invention of the fax, the answering machine, and the modem (Stylianou, 2011).

This research takes an in depth look at how the telecommunications industry employed fallacies, among other discursive devices, to garner support for VoIP deregulation. The intersection among discursive policy frames, lobbying efforts, and legislative language itself, is central to this study. The following section explores these connections.

 

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Political influences, public perceptions, and regulatory realities

Lobbyists’ role in drafting legislation

Struggles over technology, market position, political power, and cultural meaning have long characterized telecommunications policy. Regulators, corporations and consumer advocates all establish policy frames meant to influence public opinion and lawmakers. But the telecommunications industry can afford to embed these narratives into public consciousness by investing in public relations tactics, think tanks and lobbying elected officials. In the 1960s, scholarly research brought attention to potential threats posed by Washington “pressure groups” that began proliferating during the previous decade. A seminal study conducted by Schlozman and Tiemey (1983) provided the first in depth look at lobbying, exposing an intricate partnership between government and corporate interests. Interviews with industry representatives revealed that Capital Hill staffers frequently relied on their expertise to clarify or explain complex technical information. Congressional staffers acknowledged depending on telecommunications industry lobbyists to interpret data and provide analysis (Schlozman and Tierney, 1983), even though both activities are fraught with inherent biases.

Gerken and Tausanovitch (2014) point out that members of state general assemblies — the focus of this study — tend to have few seasoned staffers, and those with expertise are overextended. Furthermore, state legislators lack publicly funded policy resources such as the Congressional Research Service. The American Legislative Exchange Council and corporate lobbyists willingly fill this void with number crunchers and attorneys. When lawmakers tackle controversial issues, lobbyists are “highly likely” [4] to either volunteer or be invited to draft language, according to committee staffers. Telecommunications technologies are also dynamic and complex. As a result, state lawmakers depend on phone and cable companies to play an integral role in the bill-drafting process. An article in the Boston Business Journal referred to a VoIP deregulation measure pending in Massachusetts as “Verizon’s legislation” (Chesto, 2013). Similarly, a Kentucky VoIP deregulation bill passed in 2015 was dubbed “the AT&T bill” (Gerth, 2015). While testifying before the New Hampshire PUC, Comcast’s senior director of public affairs told commissioners he co-authored “the VoIP deregulation portions” of SB 48 (Hodgdon, 2012), which ultimately became law. More than 40 lobbyists, including six from AT&T, worked on a VoIP deregulation bill in Iowa (Lynch, 2014).

By spoon-feeding legislators both draft bill language and political analyses, lobbyists ensure lawmakers consider industry-friendly measures (Hall and Deardoff, 2006). After Wisconsin Senator Jeff Plale introduced a bill eliminating state oversight of VoIP services, his chief of staff commented that the number of meetings with AT&T lawyers and executives were “too numerous to count.” Written exchanges show that attorneys for AT&T and the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association suggested revisions for Plale’s staff (Vanegaren, 2010).

Political contributions are another source of influence and, thus, they indirectly shape policy frames. The communications and electronics industries combined contributed nearly US$140 million to state-level candidates and committees in 2014 (Follow the Money, 2015). The role played by money in the VoIP debate cannot be understated. Michigan Representative Ken Horn, cosponsor of a 2011 VoIP deregulation law, is the top recipient of AT&T contributions in the Michigan House (Project Vote Smart, 2013). Former California Senator Alex Padilla sponsored that state’s IP-deregulation bill after receiving more than US$109,000 from telecommunications companies (Influence Explorer, 2013).

By contrast, the American Legislative Exchange Council does not spend any of its US$7 million annual budget (Common Cause, 2014) to directly lobby legislators. Instead, it provides a forum for corporate representatives and state legislators to collaboratively draft “model acts” introduced in state houses across the country — including the model VoIP deregulation bill picked up by legislators throughout the country. American Legislative Exchange Council’s (2015) membership includes CenturyLink, Verizon, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp., T-Mobile, and national associations for the cable and wireless industries (Stop the Cap!, 2012; American Legislative Exchange Council, 2010). Notably, AT&T’s vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs serves on ALEC’s corporate board (Stop the Cap!, 2012; SourceWatch, 2015).

These relationships are key to understanding who originates message frames and how they are disseminated. The following section explains the research methodology.

 

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Theoretical framework and methodology

Deconstructing meaning

Narratives, myths, analogies, idealized versions of the truth, and generalizations are among the discursive devices that contribute to the formation of policy. In light of this, this study relied on CDA, with a particular focus on frame analysis (van Dijk, 2003, 2001, 1997), to examine telecommunications industry discourse. This methodological approach provided an ideal framework for deconstructing the symbolic meaning of blog posts, press releases, editorials and legislative language itself aimed at weakening state-level oversight of VoIP and other IP-enabled services. Frames are typically employed in an effort to strategically simplify complex challenges, and to paint a picture of a particular “reality.” Additionally, frames possess normative denotation and connotation. The concept of frames is useful for critically examining policy, as it reveals dominant messages that function as part of broader patterns of inequality, exclusion, domination, and power (Braun, 2016).

Methodological approaches to CDA and framing vary, but policy scholars tend to emphasize practical dimensions in their findings. Schön and Rein (1994) define frames as “underlying structures of belief, perception and appreciation,” [5] which “select for attention a few salient features and relations from what would otherwise be an overwhelmingly complex reality” [6]. For this study, the researcher drew from van Dijk’s (2009) articulation of “critical discourse studies,” which embodies a combination of theory, application, and analysis. According to van Dijk (2001), “language use, discourse, verbal interaction and communication belong to the micro-level of the social order” [7]. By contrast, power and inequality between social groups — such as consumer advocates who favor stringent government oversight of the telecom industry, and the incumbent phone carriers urging state legislators to deregulate the industry — are situated within a macro-level of analysis. CDA bridges the gap between both levels (Perdigão Ribeiro, 2010). Van Dijk’s (1997) definition of CDA is multi-layered. First, discourse is described at the syntactic, semantic, stylistic, and rhetorical levels. Secondly, van Dijk considers discourse in terms of the speakers’ processes of production, reception, and understanding. Thirdly — and perhaps most relevant to this analysis of the VoIP deregulation debate — van Dijk recognizes the social dimension of discourse. Specifically, he characterizes discourse as a sequence of contextualized, controlled, and purposeful acts accomplished in society (Hidalgo Tenorio, 2011). Discourse is a form of social action that takes place in a particular context, whether a physical setting or temporal space. Context depends on one’s familiarity with situations and institutions, and with how to appropriately use language in each (van Dijk, 1997; Hidalgo Tenorio, 2011). This plays out in the VoIP deregulation debate, as industry stakeholders promote their agenda in various contexts, ranging from the state house floor to the local news studio.

The purpose of this analysis is to better understand how industry stakeholders adopted policy frames extolling the economic and consumer benefits of VoIP deregulation, despite conflicting evidence. Following close review of the scholarly literature and relevant texts, three research questions emerged:

RQ1: What are the discursive policy frames that industry stakeholders employed while advocating for VoIP deregulation at the state level?
RQ2: How did the telecommunications industry use its position of power to push specific policy frames and shape “reality”?
RQ3: What evidence exists to suggest that industry-generated policy frames influenced language in legislative measures themselves?

Methodology

CDA is fundamental to conducting frame analysis. For this study, the methodology involved coding texts according to frames communicated by VoIP deregulation proponents. The researcher began by consulting a National Regulatory Research Institute report listing 36 state bills adopted between January 2009 and July 2015 that weakened or eliminated state oversight of VoIP services (Lichtenberg, 2015, 2013). The legislative measures were secured; these bills are listed below (Table 1).

 

Table 1: Proposed or adopted legislative measures that weaken VoIP regulations.
1.Alabama SB 373 (2009).Communications Reform Act.
2.Arkansas SB 755 (2011).An act to encourage investment in telecommunications infrastructure by reducing regulatory burdens and creating regulatory parity for all telecommunications providers in competitive exchanges of electing companies.
3.California SB 1161 (2012).Communications: Voice over Internet protocol and Internet protocol enabled communications service.
4.Colorado HB 1329 (2014).Concerning the exemption of certain IP-enabled services from oversight by the Public Utilities Commission.
5.Connecticut HB 6401(2013).An act concerning interconnected VoIP service and IP enabled service.
6.Delaware HB 96 (2013).Act to amend Title 26 of the Delaware Code.
7.District of Columbia B17-0332 (2008).Telecommunications Competition.
8.Florida HB 1233 (2011).Telecommunications Reform Act.
9.Georgia HB 168 (2010).Telecommunications; modernize competition; provisions.
10.Idaho SB 1105 (2015).An act relating to telecommunications.
11.Illinois SB 107 (2010).Illinois Telecommunications Act.
12.Indiana SB 492 (2013).Various telecommunications matters.
13.Iowa HSB 590 (2015).An Act exempting Internet protocol-enabled service and voice over Internet protocol service from specified regulatory authority.
14.Kansas HB 2201 (2013).Telecommunications; regulation by the state corporation commission and distributions from the Kansas universal service fund.
15.Kentucky SB 88 (2013).An act relating to telecommunications.
16.Maine LD 879 (2015).An act to ensure high-quality telecommunications services for Maine consumers and businesses.
17.Massachusetts HB 2930 (2013).An act modernizing telephone regulation and encouraging economic growth.
18.Michigan HB 4314 (2011).The Michigan telecommunications modernization act.
19.Minnesota SB 1862 (2015).Telecommunications rate case procedures; consumer billing practices standardization; intrastate call completion; certification procedures simplification; obsolete provisions removal.
20.Mississippi HB 825 (2012).An act to amend Section 77-3-3, Mississippi code of 1972.
21.Nevada SB 112 (2015).Revises provisions relating to telecommunications.
22.New Hampshire SB 48 (2012).An act relative to state regulation of telephone service providers and clarifying the authority of the public utilities commission to regulate pole attachments.
23.New Jersey S2664 (2011).Market competition and consumer choice act.
24.New Mexico SB 193 (2015).PRC jurisdiction over local phone carriers.
25.New York SB 5769 (2011).An act to amend the public service law, in relation to eliminating state regulation of VoIP service in order to facilitate competition and ensure consumers receive the maximum benefit of competition.
26.North Carolina SB 343 (2011).An act establishing the communications regulatory reform and investment act of 2011.
27.North Dakota HB 1385 (2015).An act relating to voice over internet protocol service and Internet protocol-enabled service.
28.Ohio SB 162 (2010).The telecommunications modernization act of 2010.
29.Pennsylvania HB 1608 (2013).The telecommunications market competition act.
30.Rhode Island SB 0111 (2013).Telephone regulation modernization act.
31.Texas SB 259 (2013).An act relating to telecommunications services and markets.
32.Tennessee SB 1954 (2009).Market regulation act.
33.Virginia (2011) HB 2367.Telecommunications services; eliminates certain requirements.
34.West Virginia SB 576 (2015).A bill to amend the code of West Virginia protocol-enabled service and voice over Internet protocol-enabled service.
35.Wisconsin Act 22 (2011).Telecommunications modernization act of 2011.
36.Wyoming HB 18 (2013).Telecommunications-Internet protocol enabled services.

 

Next, the researcher analyzed the discourses industry stakeholders used to exert influence in the spheres of mass media and politics. Specifically, press releases, hearing testimony transcripts, blog posts, public comments on proposed state PUC rules, and editorials written by VoIP deregulation proponents were examined. “Industry stakeholders” included corporate-funded think tanks, lobbyists, trade associations, and lawmakers who sponsored VoIP deregulation bills. The researcher located texts by searching news outlet archives, the Lexis-Nexis database, and keyword searches in Google. Searches of Web sites hosted by free-market think tanks (i.e., Heartland Institute and American Enterprise Institute) and industry coalitions (i.e., Wired Nation and TechNet), were also used to locate texts.

Through this comprehensive search, 75 texts were collected. The text was analyzed for recurring “thematic patterns” to identify discourse formations and systems of meanings (Lemke, 1995). Discourses were examined sentence-by-sentence, relevant themes and functions were categorized according to relevant themes and functions identified within the text itself, the broader discourse on telecommunications regulation, or more generally in society. After several close reads and coding of relevant discourses, four dominant themes emerged. The following section examines each discursive frame in depth.

 

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Findings and discussion

Symbolic language in VoIP deregulation legislation

The four frames found to dominate industry discourse on VoIP deregulation include 1) job creation and economic growth; 2) consumer benefits and innovation; 3) broadband connectivity and an open Internet; and, 4) modernization of telecommunications policy (Table 2).

 

Table 2: Categories of texts analyzed and frequency of policy frames used in telecommunications industry discourse.
 Job creation/economic growthConsumer benefits/innovationBroadband connectivity/net neutralityModernization
Legislative hearing testimony20181217
Op-eds5513
Mainstream news coverage13865
Blogs, newsletters, news releases and other internal communications1212411
Legislative language and accompanying legislative memos111378
Total number of mentions61563044

 

Job creation and economic growth

In 61 of the 75 texts analyzed, proponents of state-level VoIP deregulation measures claimed that less oversight creates jobs and grows the economy. For example, Kentucky dubbed its legislation the New Economy Communications Act. Similarly, Georgia called its law the Telecommunications Jobs Act — even though its key provisions bar state regulators from exercising authority over broadband, VoIP, or wireless services. Citizens for a Digital Future (2010) — an AT&T-funded corporate coalition with chapters in 13 states — reinforced the policy frame of job creation by applauding Georgia legislators for “creating a domino effect that will allow businesses to expand and job opportunities to grow.” In Rhode Island, pending legislation asserts that VoIP deregulation is “necessary” to “promote the creation of new jobs.” A memo stressing that VoIP deregulation would allow rural residents to “connect to a new world of remote job opportunities” and attract “higher paying information age jobs” accompanied a stalled New York VoIP deregulation bill. Similarly, phone providers argued that “regulatory certainty” would spur the creation of new jobs in New York. An AT&T spokesman told the Hartford Courant that Connecticut’s deregulation bill “is about attracting investment and growing jobs” (Podsada, 2012). An industry representative argued that pending legislation in Wisconsin would lead to “more jobs and more economic growth” (Nation, 2010).

Topoi, or standard arguments made during discourse, represent premises that are taken for granted as self-evident and as sufficient reasons to accept a conclusion (van Dijk, 2000). An extension of this concept is Fletcher’s (1999) assertion that the “locus of power” is “systems of shared meaning that reinforce mainstream ideas” [8]. Within the VoIP deregulation debate, CDA highlights the process by which the more powerful group was able to define an outcome and, subsequently, influence policy. Both industry stakeholders and legislators presented economic growth as if it were a commonsense consequence of VoIP deregulation. They pinpointed unemployment and low-paying jobs as issues that resonated with the public. In fact, Americans consistently cite the economy as the most pressing challenge facing the country (Gallup, 2016). The telecommunications industry capitalized on economic anxiety by offering VoIP deregulation as one solution to genuine challenges such as wage stagnation and joblessness.

However, real-life events contradict this industry claim. Verizon sold off its entire wired network and stopped providing telephone service in four states where lawmakers enacted VoIP deregulation. Since 2008, Verizon has shed more than 30,000 jobs to boost profits of its landline business (Davidson, 2014). Since the 1980s, the U.S. government has deregulated the stock market; the banking system; the electricity sector; and, the airline industry, among others. But economists have never established a link between regulation and increased unemployment (Shapiro, 2011). When the National Federation of Independent Businesses (2011) surveyed small businesses, just 14 percent of respondents cited regulation as their biggest problem. Lax oversight of Wall Street banks — not too much regulation — is widely blamed for the recent U.S. recession, which cost millions of Americans their jobs. An economist who worked in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush told the Associated Press, “As for the idea that cutting regulations will lead to significant job growth, it’s just nonsense. It’s just made up” (Babington, 2011). Regardless, by consistently associating VoIP deregulation with job creation, proponents of the policy used their dominant position and authority to exploit a pervasive belief that the private sector is more capable and effective than government.

Consumer benefits and innovation

The American Legislative Exchange Council’s model legislation proclaims to make VoIP services available “by establishing a framework that promotes customer choice and competition.” This analysis found that proponents of statewide measures embraced this message, which was identified in 56 texts. For example, North Carolina legislators called their VoIP deregulation law the Consumer Choice and Investment Act. Delaware Governor Jack Markell signed a VoIP deregulation bill declaring to give providers “flexibility to compete, while protecting the interests of consumers.” As critical discourse scholars note, one way of enacting power is to control context. When a less powerful group is excluded from access or context structures, the result is “discourse dominance” [9]. Effectively, some voices are censored, certain opinions are never heard, and particular perspectives ignored. This analysis found that both print and broadcast outlets routinely reported industry claims of consumer benefits verbatim, while devoting minimal space (or, in some cases, no space) to concerns about weakened oversight. For example, the president of AT&T Michigan is repeatedly quoted in newspaper articles asserting that the state’s VoIP deregulation law “maintains important consumer protections,” while eliminating “unnecessary and costly regulations” (Walker, 2011). In practice, Michigan’s law removed limits on rate hikes and state-mandated fair billing practices; abolished quality of service requirements; reduced privacy guidelines; and, allowed phone companies to discontinue service for any reason. The Lexington Herald-Leader ran an opinion piece authored by the president of AT&T Kentucky, who stated that VoIP deregulation “ensures providers have the flexibility to serve customers with new and better technologies” (Regan, 2013). The Herald-Leader did not grant equal space to the Kentucky Resources Council (2013), which concluded that deregulation could cause low-income and rural residents to lose access to basic, stand-alone telephone service.

The telecommunications industry capitalized on its wealth and political power by creating organizations meant to sound like consumer advocacy groups, which protect the interests of the public. Certainly, messages articulated by industry-funded groups like Citizens for a Digital Future, Wired Nation, Hands off the Internet and TechNet are less likely to be challenged than assertions originating directly from AT&T. As CDA notes, “strategies of self-presentation and impression management” [10] are key for demonstrating that not only is the discourse persuasive, but that the speaker is believable (van Dijk, 2000). While people generally associate lobbying with self-interest pursuits and back-door deals (Boldt, 2012), they typically associate nonprofit organizations with positive contributions to society.

A close reading of relevant discourses found that the telecom industry often coupled assurances of consumer benefits with promises of innovation. For instance, a Time Warner Cable executive told the Albany Times-Union, “It’s about new technologies ... We want New York to be at the forefront of where we roll out our new products and services” (Rulison, 2012). In written testimony signed by nearly 30 local chambers of commerce in Michigan, business leaders declared that existing regulations were “roadblocks to ... innovation” (Michigan Chambers of Commerce, 2011). Testifying on behalf of a VoIP deregulation bill, the president of the Connecticut Technology Council said the measure would enhance the “innovation ecosystem” (Nemerson, 2013). In reality, investment in the telecommunications sector is no weaker in states retaining PUC oversight (Progressive States Network, 2012). Yet, when VoIP deregulation proponents refer to “innovation,” they deliberately invoke a great deal of symbolic meaning. The contextual model (van Dijk, 1993) of CDA recognizes that commonly shared opinions and knowledge exist in each society. In the United States, the term innovation is culturally associated with creating novel or better products, or with breakthrough ideas. Historically, Americans have considered innovation a key aspect of national identity. During the Cold War, both the United States and Russia used technological progress to assert dominance — from satellite equipment capable of spying on other countries, to space exploration. Americans are proud of U.S.-based technology companies like Apple and Microsoft (Levin, 2014; Wile, 2014). In its effort to push VoIP deregulation, the telecommunications industry used discursive devices to conjure fears that government oversight threatens America’s venerable role as a technology leader. Additionally, CDA analyzes sociocultural practice, or the set of wider social and cultural discourses that surround a text (Fairclough, 1995). Here, the telecommunications industry has embedded the deregulation of VoIP services into the broader context of anxiety about America’s role in the world.

A discursive technique known as linkages assists the audience in connecting concepts and claims. A letter from the Voice on the Net Coalition — whose members include AT&T, Google and Skype — to sponsors of Minnesota’s VoIP deregulation measure exemplifies how the telecommunications industry employed logical connectors, a type of linkage, to make claims about innovation:

VoIP and other Internet-based communications services are driving economic growth and broadband adoption throughout the state, which in turn drive the growth of “apps” and the devices that enable consumers to use them, which in turn drives the deployment of broadband networks which these apps and devices utilize (Richards, 2015).

In this example, logical connectors are used to establish clear and consistent authority regarding the positive impacts of VoIP deregulation. They “cue ideological assumptions” [11] and demonstrate relationships between concepts understood as common sense. The audience is likely to accept the industry coalition’s message about innovation — not so much because of its truth value, but because this outcome of VoIP deregulation has been stamped with institutional legitimacy and repeated by industry representatives perceived as authorities (Winslade, 2005).

In at least one state where VoIP deregulation has already occurred, industry lobbying contradicts claims of consumer protection. In 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) (2013) began investigating whether Comcast breached state law by publishing contact information for 74,000 phone subscribers who paid the company to ensure their numbers would remain unlisted. In court filings, Comcast admitted the disclosures violated California PUC rules. Simultaneously, Comcast argued that the California PUC lacked jurisdiction to investigate or impose penalties against the cable provider because of its VoIP deregulation law — codified in §710 of the state’s Public Utilities Code (Utility Reform Network, 2013). In 2014, the California PUC began looking into whether a US$45 billion proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger might mean higher bills and fewer choices for broadband and phone subscribers. Again, Comcast (2014) maintained that the California PUC lacked authority to investigate because of §710. Finally, in 2014, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) opened a proceeding to revise its LifeLine Program, which discounts phone service for low-income households. Major phone providers argued that the commission’s proposal was “contrary to §710” (Cox California Telcom LLC, 2014).

In all three of these situations, industry cited California’s VoIP deregulation law as grounds for opposing phone customer protections — even as it insisted that deregulation benefits consumers. As Fairclough and Wodak (1997) note, discourse is socially constitutive and socially conditioned. In these scenarios, the telecommunications industry used anti-regulatory discourse to help maintain the status quo, as well as to influence future developments.

An open Internet and broadband connectivity

In an attempt to defuse opponent discourses, dominant groups may strategically adopt phrases used by their adversaries (van Dijk, 2003). While pushing VoIP deregulation, the telecommunications industry capitalized on mainstream support of an open Internet by framing deregulation as necessary for “Internet freedom,” a phrase originally championed by proponents of net neutrality. The conviction that the Internet is like a freeway — accessible to all traffic, with no distinction between drivers or types of vehicles — is a “bedrock principle” (Wihbey, 2014) to a majority of Americans. This analysis of relevant discourses identified 30 instances of the telecom industry conflating VoIP deregulation with an open Internet, despite that the two concepts are diametrically opposed [12]. Ironically, the same Internet service providers that employed pro-net neutrality rhetoric in the context of VoIP deregulation fought the FCC’s efforts to codify open Internet principles. Verizon’s lawsuit against the Commission’s 2010 net neutrality rule-making killed key provisions of the rule. AT&T, along with wireless and cable industry groups, unsuccessfully sued to overturn the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order.

Free-market organizations pushing weaker oversight of VoIP services routinely used the “Internet freedom” frame. The Federalist Society (https://fedsoc.org) — a network of conservative and libertarian lawyers — asserted that state regulation of VoIP diminishes “the advantages of the Internet’s ubiquitous and open nature” (Sopkin, 2008). TechNet (2012) declared VoIP services more “affordable and efficient” than copper landlines due to their “reliance on the open architecture of the Internet.” (Paradoxically, AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS carry VoIP calls over private fiber networks, not the public Internet.) Writing in Forbes, an industry consultant characterized California’s VoIP deregulation measure as “a glorious victory for Internet freedom” and necessary to prevent “would-be regulators from tinkering with the mechanics of the Internet” (Downes, 2012). Language in the bill itself claims to “ensure a vibrant and competitive open Internet.”

The relationship between people and the world “are mediated by means of collectively created symbolic meaning systems or orders of knowledge” [13], and the practical meanings of words are socially constructed (Keller, 2013). Through this lens, it becomes clear that policy frames touting Internet “freedom” and “openness” are intended to invoke core American values (Baker, 2014). The terms play on concepts of social mobility, individual autonomy, and achievement inherent to the fabled American dream. Open Internet principles, themselves, are associated with the Constitutional guarantee of free speech and democracy (Karr, 2009). By espousing the concept of “openness,” deregulation proponents imply that, without deregulation, the Internet will become inaccessible and fraught with government interference.

Close readings of relevant texts also identified a pattern of discursive claims associating VoIP deregulation with digital inclusion. This policy frame is observable in Arkansas’ 2011 VoIP deregulation law, which notes that “widespread and timely deployment of broadband infrastructure is vital.” Lobbying on behalf of VoIP deregulation in Massachusetts, a Verizon spokesperson proclaimed that state policies must encourage “deployment of broadband technology” (North Shore Interactive Journal, 2013). Citizens for a Digital Future placed ads and editorials across Kentucky media asserting that SB 88 would close the digital divide (Gerdemann, 2013). When North Carolina lawmakers eliminated state oversight of IP-enabled services, Citizens for a Digital Future (2009) blogged that the new law would “enable greater broadband access in the state.” During a hearing on Pennsylvania’s deregulation proposal, a spokesperson for the conservative 60 Plus Association testified that the bill would “ignite” the expansion of broadband networks (Scimeca, 2013). By adopting this policy frame, supporters of VoIP deregulation capitalized on the symbolic meaning of digital inclusion — encompassing access to opportunity, knowledge, and skills (Information Policy and Access Center, 2015). Industry discourse suggested that VoIP deregulation would enable people to gain access to the positive externalities associated with connectivity, such as better jobs, a higher standard of living, and even stronger social ties.

Modernization

The American Legislative Exchange Council’s model Regulatory Modernization Act (2009) states that carriers should be free to offer services “without state Commission oversight.” This analysis identified 44 texts similarly referring to the need to “modernize” existing VoIP regulations. For instance, Arkansas’ SB 755 claims to “eliminate outdated, unnecessary, and burdensome laws and regulations.” When the Georgia General Assembly passed a similar law, it included language describing intent “to update and modernize” state telecommunications policies. A member of the Michigan House who voted for that state’s Telecommunications Modernization Act asserted that landline regulations need “to be brought into the 21st century” (Walker, 2011). Florida’s VoIP deregulation bill promises to remove “obsolete” regulations. During testimony in support of Texas’ proposal, telecom industry representatives repeatedly mentioned that it was time to let go of “regulatory relics,” “burdensome, out-of-date regulations,” and “old school rules” (Howden, 2011; Gartman, 2011). An AT&T Texas executive characterized Texas’ SB 980 as “right for the times” (Digneo, 2011). Delaware’s deregulation bill promises to “modernize the rules” affecting industry. In another example, California state Senator Alex Padilla (2012) applauded Governor Jerry Brown for signing a bill “vital” to “our modern day quality of life.” The free market Heartland Institute wrote that states must deregulate VoIP to prevent “a wall of archaic regulations” (Glans, 2012) from impeding communication technologies.

With this policy frame, industry stakeholders again rely on the discursive device that van Dijk (2000) dubs “fallacies.” Deregulation laws prevent state PUCs from regulating the price, quality of service, and availability of VoIP services — functions that few people characterize as “archaic.” As CDA scholars have demonstrated, “loaded words” [14] and euphemisms have the potential for political impact (Wilson, 2003). The phrase modernization tends to be associated with superiority, such as countries that are wealthy and powerful (Lerner, 1958; Shramm, 1964; Inglehart, 1997). Modernization is also frequently linked to transformation and progress. Citizens living in “modern” societies are perceived as freer, and are thought to enjoy a higher standard of living (Rostow, 1960). In state after state, lobbyists and lawmakers adopted policy frames equating these concepts with VoIP deregulation.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

This study used critical discourse analysis (CDA) to examine discursive claims made by proponents of state-level VoIP deregulation. Frame analysis, in particular, was useful for revealing dominant messages conveyed by the telecommunications industry, and for identifying these messages as part of a broader pattern of inequality and dominant positioning. This research demonstrates how telecommunications providers and lawmakers consistently associated the deregulation of phone and broadband services with four widely supported political economic goals. Specifically, deregulation proponents framed less government oversight as a catalyst for job creation; technological innovation; consumer protection; digital equity; and, modernization. They disseminated this discourse in press releases, on social media, during interviews with the mainstream media, in editorials, and while testifying before legislative committees. As the findings demonstrate, these frames made their way into state laws and pending legislation throughout the country. Titles of legislative measures contain phrases such as “modernization,” “economic growth,” and “consumer choice” (Table 1). Provisions in many bills explicitly reference consumer protection, broadband access, job creation, innovation, and modernization as justification for weakening state oversight of VoIP and IP-enabled services. The deregulation proponents making these claims provide little, if any, evidence to support them. However, this analysis highlights situations that contradict industry assertions — such as telecommunications companies’ repeatedly attempted to block the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) from strengthening consumer protections after the state deregulated IP services, and Verizon’s decision to cease telephone service in four states where lawmakers enacted VoIP deregulation.

The findings of this paper have implications for future research on telecommunications policy debates. Researchers could examine discursive claims dominating a host of contested telecommunications policy issues, such as net neutrality, media consolidation, and online privacy. Struggles over how to define social challenges through policy frames are at the heart of the political process, and powerful stakeholders will naturally strive to define conflicts in ways that advance their ideological positions (Murphy and Maynard, 2000). This analysis highlights the need to question policy paradigms and, potentially, shift the terms of debate. End of article

 

About the author

Gwen Shaffer is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Public Relations at California State University Long Beach. Her research focuses on issues related to telecommunications law and policy.
E-mail: gwen [dot] shaffer [at] csulb [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. It remains a matter of substantial expertise and difficulty to draw a line between regulated time division multiplex (TDM) services and unregulated IP services. Both are digitized. Both are ways of dividing and transmitting voice messages (and other data) in small sets of digital information. TDM sets or “frames” are sequenced on one transmission path, while IP sets or “packets” may be sent by multiple routes; Newton’s Telecom Dictionary (27th edition, 2013; 24th edition, 2008).

2. Hajer and Versteeg, 2005, pp. 175–184.

3. Van Dijk, 2000, p. 218.

4. Nourse and Schacter, 2002, p. 587.

5. Schön and Rein, 1994, p. 23.

6. Schön and Rein, 1994, p. 26.

7. Van Dijk, 2001, p. 354.

8. Fletcher, 1999, p. 17.

9. Van Dijk, 1993, p. 260.

10. Van Dijk, 2000, p. 223.

11. Fairclough, 2001, p. 109.

12. On 14 January 2014, the D.C. Circuit issued its decision in Verizon v. Federal Communications Commission, DC Circuit No. 11–1355 (Slip Opinion) rejecting the FCC’s proposed net neutrality rules (particularly those barring traffic discrimination and blocking) because they were built on a deregulatory “information service” platform, rather than the more solid legal and regulatory classification of common carrier. Therefore, the reality of net neutrality is that it requires some regulation. Specifically, net neutrality requires a return to the common carrier regime that existed until 2002, and which enabled the existing Internet. See Witteman, “Information freedom, a constitutional value for the 21st century,” Hastings International and Comparative Law Review, volume 36, number 1 (2013), at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2218076, at footnotes 12, 38 and accompanying text.

13. Keller, 2013, p. 2.

14. Wilson, 2003, p. 411.

 

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Editorial history

Received 30 October 2017; accepted 14 December 2017.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

A critical discourse analysis of how the telecommunications industry influenced VoIP deregulation legislation in 36 states
by Gwen Shaffer.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 1 - 1 January 2018
http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/8142/6614
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i1.8142





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