Half-True
Democratic Party of Wisconsin
Says U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson "opposes faster broadband internet in small towns" and "got nearly $90,000 in campaign contributions from the telecom special interests."

Democratic Party of Wisconsin on Thursday, June 23rd, 2016 in a radio ad

Wisconsin Democrats claim Ron Johnson opposes faster rural broadband, took money from industry

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson speaks at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland (Photo by Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY NETWORK)

In June 2016, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson aired a TV ad emphasizing his humble beginnings as a dishwasher and machine operator.

The next day, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin released a radio ad arguing just the opposite.

The ad painted the Republican Johnson as a "multi-millionaire CEO turned Senator" out of touch with the needs of Wisconsinites living in rural areas.

"Living in the country doesn’t mean we should have fewer opportunities," the speaker says. "Unfortunately, that’s what Wisconsin gets with Sen. Ron Johnson."

Later the speaker says: "He opposes faster broadband internet in small towns. Maybe because he got nearly $90,000 in campaign contributions from the telecom special interests."

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, running against Johnson, has argued for rural broadband to be more like a public utility. Johnson opposes that idea. But that doesn’t mean he opposes bringing faster broadband to rural areas.

Let’s examine the two parts of the claim one at a time.

Faster internet in rural small towns

Many Wisconsinites in rural areas lack access to reliable, high-speed internet. While the Federal Communications Commission has said maximizing access to broadband internet is a priority, there is widespread disagreement about how to pay for the infrastructure upgrades needed to make it a reality.

Harry Hartfield, communications director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin said Johnson’s voting record demonstrates he opposes to faster broadband in rural areas.

He pointed to two votes in particular:

  • In 2012, Johnson voted for a Senate bill amendment that would have eliminated the authority of the Agriculture Department to increase the amount of federal grants to provide broadband access in rural areas.

  • In 2013, Johnson voted against a Senate bill amendment that established a pilot program to expand high speed broadband service to rural areas.

"If (Johnson) supported faster internet in rural communities, he would have supported legislation that did just that," Hartfield said.

Hartfield also noted Johnson and five other Republican senators argued the definition of broadband was "too fast" in a 2016 letter to the FCC chairman, since few applications require download speeds of 25 Mbps, the new standard. They gave the example of Netflix, which recommends download speeds of 5 Mbps to stream high-definition video.

The letter’s authors said they worried increased regulation as a result of the standard would disincentivize telecommunications companies to offer higher speeds.

Barry Orton, a professor emeritus of telecommunications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that most households have more than one person using the internet at once, which makes faster speeds necessary.

"Why are they writing a letter saying don’t expand the broadband definition?" said Orton, who helped Feingold’s campaign develop its broadband materials. "Because expansion of the broadband definition doesn’t help existing providers that are offering less than that."

For its part, Johnson’s campaign says he supports increased broadband connectivity — but wants the private sector deliver the services.

"Ron has worked on a bipartisan basis to create an environment where more broadband companies can invest and innovate to provide better internet access and more choice across Wisconsin," Johnson’s campaign said in an April statement.

Campaign spokesman Brian Reisinger provided two additional letters to support this stance.

  • A 2013 letter signed by Johnson and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, urged the FCC to finalize its plan to distribute funds for deployment of broadband to rural areas.

  • A 2014 letter signed by more than 40 senators asked the FCC to carefully update rules governing broadband in rural areas to encourage competition.

So, while the party cited two votes, it did not give a full picture of Johnson’s record on the matter. Indeed, there may be multiple ways to achieve the same goal.

Contributions from telecom special interests

The ad also claims Johnson’s campaign got "nearly $90,000" in contributions from telecommunications special interests.

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin cited OpenSecrets.org, a website that pulls from Federal Election Committee data, which shows Johnson received at least $95,000 in contributions since 2010 from political action committees representing "telecom services" companies, including AT&T, Charter and Comcast.

Our rating

The Democratic Party’s radio ad said Johnson "opposes faster broadband internet in small towns" and he "got nearly $90,000 in campaign contributions from the telecom special interests."

Johnson’s voting record shows he opposed two particular proposals to grow faster broadband in rural areas and one signed letter to the FCC showed he was against a faster definition of broadband.

But two other letters to the FCC suggest he’s in favor of faster rural broadband — but concerned with its execution. Johnson’s campaign has said he supports using the private sector to grow rural broadband.

The second part of the claim is on point — Johnson actually received somewhat more from the industry than the ad claimed.

On balance, we rate the claim Half True.

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