Trump’s attacks on AT&T and CNN prove he cares more about being petty than consumer protections
President Donald Trump must have spent his overnight flight to the United Kingdom on Monday brooding over unfavorable coverage of his administration on CNN because as soon as he landed, he fired off a screed aimed at the network's parent company, AT&T. After noting that CNN is the primary source of U.S.-based news in the U.K., The president advised his supporters to drop AT&T's services in order to punish CNN.
“I believe that if people stoped using or subscribing to @ATT, they would be forced to make big changes at @CNN, which is dying in the ratings anyway. It is so unfair with such bad, Fake News! Why wouldn’t they act. When the World watches @CNN, it gets a false picture of USA. Sad!,” the president tweeted.
Trump has been attempting to stomp out CNN basically since the moment he was elected. He's repeatedly called the network "fake news," refused to allow CNN reporters to ask questions during press conferences and has gone so far as to pull press passes from particularly adversarial reporters from the outlet. Since taking office, Trump has attempted to harm the network's bottom line. He threatened to block AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner, which counted the news network as one of its properties. He went so far as to encourage his Justice Department to block the media mega-merger, but the challenge failed and AT&T took ownership of Time Warner and CNN. Even his tweets on Monday have been mostly ineffective. The company's stock didn't take a hit and is slightly up on the day.
The fact that AT&T owns a news outlet that is occasionally critical of Trump is not a good reason to ditch the company. But if Trump really wanted to appeal to the better interests of Americans, there are plenty of anti-consumer practices telecom companies engage in that are worthy of being called out. Unfortunately, while these things directly effect many people including plenty of Trump supporters, the president is uninterested in actually addressing them. In some cases, he actively enables the bad behavior. Instead, his call out comes only because CNN's coverage hurt his feelings.
Here are some reasons Trump actually should direct his ire toward AT&T and the telecom industry:
Telecoms throttle your internet speeds
When paying for home or mobile internet service, the one thing that you would expect to get is a consistent and reliable connection that delivers speeds the company promised you. That has, on occasion, been too much to ask of AT&T and some of its competitors. The company has been accused by the Federal Trade Commission of throttling internet speeds for customers with unlimited data plans, and a study conducted last year by Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst found AT&T intentionally slowed data connections when subscribers use services like Netflix or YouTube. (AT&T isn't alone in this; mobile and broadband providers like Verizon, Comcast and others have gotten in on the action of slowing your internet.) Without net neutrality rules in place — thanks to the Trump-appointed head of the Federal Communications Commission leading a vote to repeal existing protections — there's little to prevent the ISP from continuing to impose artificial limits on your internet activity with minimal transparency regarding its actions.
AT&T lied about its 5G network
Earlier this year some AT&T customers started to see a 5G E icon on their screens where the 4G symbol used to be. The implication is that customers are connected to a 5G network, which is supposed to be the considerably faster next generation of mobile internet service. That is in no way what 5G E actually is. AT&T essentially made some upgrades to its existing 4G LTE network and rebranded it as "5G Evolution," which is purely a marketing term and has no technical basis whatsoever. A study conducted by OpenSignal found that AT&T's 5G E service is actually slower than some of its competitor's 4G networks. When AT&T launches its actual 5G service, the company plans to call it 5G+, which is once again just an exercise in branding that means nothing. The misleading network names have caused such an uproar that AT&T competitor Sprint sued the company for false advertising (the two firms settled out of court, and AT&T has continued to use the 5G E branding).
Mobile carriers have collected and sold your data
Even though you're giving AT&T money in exchange for its services, the telecom giant manages to find other ways to make money off of you. Last year, it was revealed that mobile carriers including AT&T and competitors like Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint sold location data from customer devices to companies who made it possible to track people. AT&T promised to stop the sale of location data, but it was discovered earlier this year by Motherboard that AT&T and other carriers sold location data that was used by bounty hunters to find people. In response to the controversy, AT&T agreed to change its practices, but not before defending its actions as being legal because it technically isn't the type of data the FCC prohibits carriers from selling without customer consent.
AT&T has intentionally underserved poor neighborhoods
One of the (many) flaws in President Trump's plan to squash CNN by convincing people to ditch AT&T is the fact that many places across the country only have one high-speed internet service provider available to them. It has been hard to convince telecom companies to expand their infrastructure to rural areas where it is expensive to build and the number of potential customers is lower than in densely populated cities. AT&T has taken the additional step of occasionally even refusing to expand its services to poorer neighborhoods in cities where they already have infrastructure. In 2017, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) accused AT&T of "redlining" certain neighborhoods in the Cleveland area. Essentially, the carrier didn't extend its network to lower-income neighborhoods and deprived people living in those communities from having the ability to get high-speed internet.
AT&T has donated nearly $200,000 to candidates that support anti-abortion laws
States with Republican-controlled legislatures across the country have started passing extreme anti-abortion measures that effectively make it illegal to seek the procedure. The politicians responsible for those new, restrictive laws have financial backers who filled campaign coffers and helped them get elected, and AT&T was one of the biggest givers. While Trump certainly wouldn't call out this offense, according to data compiled by Popular Information, AT&T gave $196,600 to Republican politicians in six states who either proposed or voted for strict abortion bans. The company likely didn't give that money specifically to support restrictions on abortions — telecoms give tons of cash to try to win influence and land favorable laws at the state and federal level — but its willingness to spend for its own agenda may have inadvertently helped to fund the latest wave of restrictive abortion laws.
What you can do as a consumer
Ditching AT&T, or any telecom provider for that matter, is unfortunately easier said than done. Many regions in the country have limited mobile network coverage that restricts choice, and as many as 50 million Americans only have one broadband internet provider available in their area, according to research conducted by Economists Incorporated. But for some people, it is possible to drop the telecom giants in favor of a company that more aligns with your interests.
Check to see if your area has municipal broadband available (if it doesn't, there's a good chance it's because AT&T and other telecoms lobbied to outlaw it) that has been deployed by your local government. The Electronic Frontier Foundation also has put together a list of small internet service providers that have fought for customer privacy.
Replacing your mobile carrier is considerably more tricky, as there are only a handful of true, viable alternatives and none of them are free of their fair share of aggressively bad behavior. Selecting a mobile carrier is picking between the lesser of evils, but if you find AT&T's behavior particularly abhorrent and there is another company that sufficiently covers your region then, by all means, jump ship.
If you want try to push your ISP toward supporting policies and political candidates you can feel good about or at least tolerate, you can contact them directly to express your displeasure with any of the company's lobbying efforts or political contributions. Or you can bypass the company entirely and contact your representatives. Money talks, but their job is to carry out the wishes of their constituents. Let them know that you support stricter rules for how telecommunications companies like AT&T can collect and use data, urge them to advocate for additional consumer protections and encourage them to take action to restore net neutrality. While it won't stop the president from tweeting, it could make a difference in how telecom giants actually treat their consumers.