Consolidation in the Cord-Cutting Era

In 2015, Charter Spectrum bought Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, a mammoth merger in the telecommunications and cable industry that made Charter the second-largest broadband provider in the nation. Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel and manager of special projects at Consumer Reports explains how the cable industry changed dramatically after the passage of the Telecom Act, why millions of consumers are cutting the cord and leaving cable, and what the telecom giants are doing to maintain their monopoly on the way people exchange information.

Why Consumer Groups Are Fighting the Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger: The concern is that the combined company and Comcast would dominate TV and broadband services.

FCC Documents Show Why Charter-Time Warner Merger Might Be Bad for Consumers: The agency’s approval of the deal carries big reservations.

3 Things Charter Promises in Its Time Warner Cable Deal: To get regulatory approval for the merger, Charter says it will abide by these terms for seven years.

What Charter’s New York Settlement Means for Cable Internet Customers: Charter settles claims that customers of its Time Warner Cable subsidiary didn’t get promised speeds or reliability.

Fighting Monopoly Power: Broadband Internet Access 

Report: Most Americans Have No Real Choice in Internet Providers

Profiles of Monopoly: Big Cable and Telecom


A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn


Reggie Rucker: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Building Local Power. I’m your co-host, Reggie Rucker, and on this show we continue with our season of How to Get Away With Merger, moving from one public utility or energy system to another public good that is a public utility in reality, but most Americans are reliant on the private market to provide it. That’s our internet, broadband.
We look at Charter Spectrum’s merger with Time Warner Cable and spotlight how consolidation in the industry is shaping the way communities stay connected and receive information. These days, so much video content. We talk Hulu, YouTube, Disney+, all the things and the internet infrastructure it depends on to get into it.
I’m going to throw it over to my co-host who never does any of my TV references, partially because I’m getting old and partially because she apparently had better things to do with her time growing up to watch TV. Luke Gannon.
Luke Gannon: No, Reggie, it’s not because you’re old. I’m trying to catch up on all the TV classics that I missed as a child, but it takes time. I’ll get your references soon enough. Speaking of TV, if you’re wondering why your TV subscriptions keep getting more and more expensive, our guest on the show today will explain exactly what’s going on today.
Jon Schwantes, a senior policy council and manager of special projects at Consumer Reports, brings us on his journey of getting into telecommunications and how the cable industry has changed drastically over the last 20 years. Let’s start from the beginning.
Jon Schwantes: I grew up in North Central Wisconsin and I’m very much a Gen Xer, so I grew up in the late 70s and all through the 80s. I’m one of six kids. My parents both worked, they were both nurses. We were solidly middle class, lower middle class, and all of my siblings. They had six kids in 10 years, so it was a zoo growing up, cats and dogs all under one roof. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot.
It wasn’t Leave It to Beaver. I tell folks who maybe aren’t familiar with or didn’t live during that time, it was probably more like the movie Dazed and Confused or even Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The high school was nuts, a lot of shenanigans and pranks, things that seemed completely normal in the early eighties would get you kicked out of school nowadays, I would imagine.
As for me, I was always drawn to politics. Whether that was student council… I wanted to be on student council, I wanted to be student council president, and I was I guess a bit precocious as a child and had this feeling, this wanderlust of as much as I love my snowy winters in Wisconsin, I am going to do more. And I did.
I think for better or worse, I would say better, I knew I wanted to do work in politics and I knew I wanted to go to law school and this would’ve been… Oh gosh, maybe fifth or sixth grade. I say for the worst because I was always on that track. I never thought I’d do anything else.
I went to college at the University of Minnesota and then my junior year, I did a semester in Washington, D.C. working in the House of Representatives, and then I did a semester in London working in Parliament and I just ate it up. I couldn’t get enough of it. I really enjoyed it. What was funny at the time is I didn’t know how much I liked it, and that would be my future career because when you go to law school, you think well shoot, maybe I should go work at a law firm.
I did that for one summer in Chicago and that’s all I needed. I’ve got family members and some of my best friends work at law firms, they are what I call real lawyers. It’s just not for me. After I graduated law school, I came out to Washington, D.C. without a job, begging and scraping all the contacts I made during my junior year internships saying please, please, please, I need to get a job.
Through a great deal of luck and… Really luck, I found myself on the Senate Judiciary Committee working for my home state senator, Senator Herb Cole, who was on the Antitrust Subcommittee. It’s really funny because all of the law that I use in my career now as an advocate in the telecommunications space, I didn’t take any of those classes in law school.
I didn’t have antitrust law, I did not have telecommunications law, I did not have administrative procedures law, nor did I have corporations, but such as Life on the Hill, you learn whatever issues are thrown at you. For me, I came into Washington, and this is a good segue at 1998, that was two years after passage of one of the landmark telecommunications laws, the 96 Telecom Act.
The industry, and consumers, and policymakers were trying to figure out what is the future of telecom? What is the future of the video marketplace? That was the last law, coming up on 30 years anniversary, that really addressed these issues.
Luke Gannon: Jon worked in the Senate for nearly eight years and had an opportunity in 2007 to try his hand on K Street. Jon joined a small lobbying firm that had a variety of clients, some of which included cable clients, but this work wasn’t for Jon.
Jon Schwantes: My heart wasn’t in it. I think it might have been a little more interesting if I were in-house with a company so you can still work on the substantive issues, but I think for me, and one of the reasons that I led the Consumer reports and quite frankly was more than willing to take a pay cut, is I wanted to get back to the work that inspired me and made me proud of what I did.
There’s no faking what I do at Consumer Reports. When I’m talking to you, when I’m talking to reporters, when I’m testifying before Congress, that’s the real me. Yes, I have to do it on behalf of Consumer Reports, but it’s a win-win. That’s basically how I ended up at Consumer Reports and it’s been a hell of a good time.
Luke Gannon: A lot has changed in the telecommunications and cable industry since 1998. What does the cable industry look like in the US currently? Who are the big players and how much of the market do they control?
Jon Schwantes: The short answer is it has changed dramatically. It has changed dramatically in my time in Washington and even since this merger happened, this merger being Charter, Time Warner Cable, Brighthouse Network. The FCC and the Department of Justice, DOJ approved this merger I want to say almost a year later in April of 2016, so that was more than seven years ago. The cable marketplace looked very different then than it does now.
How has it changed? At the time this merger was approved, Charter had almost 7 million subscribers. Time Warner Cable had just over 16 million, and Brighthouse had two and a half million. Back in the napkin, what is that? Almost 25 million subscribers for video for their old school cable TV product. Broadband was obviously becoming more and more important, and Comcast had even more at 28 million.
They’re barely Comcast and Charter, now Charter has Time Warner Cable, Brighthouse, they’re now under 15 million. Why? This marketplace has dramatically changed and I would argue for the better for consumers. In just that short seven years, millions of consumers are cutting the cord and leaving big cable.
What do we need to look at then in respect to where are we now? It’s all about broadband and that’s why it’s still a concern that these big cable companies control the broadband connection into consumer’s homes. Why is that important? Because how are consumers consuming video these days? Some consumers, I think Comcast and Charter have about 15 million video subscribers, as we call it in the lingo. Today, that’s down from 25, 28,000,000 seven years ago.
But a lot of people are cutting the cord and moving to streaming video, both what we call OVD, online video distributors, like Netflix where you just watch whatever Netflix serves you up whenever you want to watch it, and then… Here comes some more alphabet soup, what we call virtual multichannel video program distributors, which is like YouTube TV or Hulu Live.
They look and feel like cable, and so that has dramatically shifted. YouTube TV has 6 million subscribers compared to Charters, 14.5 million subscribers. This marketplace has dramatically changed. When I talk to policymakers about it, you have the video marketplace and then you have broadband, and cable does both. Whereas you have video like YouTube TV, they’re only providing you that video product. They’re not providing you broadband.
If you look on the video side, you still have DirecTV and Dish Network, the satellite companies, they’ll try to do broadband but not really in the same way that cable does. You’ve got unicorns like Verizon Fios that will give you fiber broadband to the home, and they are still doing the five Fios video product, which is about 3.5 million subscribers.
If we were having this conversation 10 years ago, we would be talking about how cable and really just a handful of companies dominate the video marketplace. That’s no longer the case in 2023, and that’s a good thing. Really through really… Let’s not give credit to big cable, I think a lot of consumers have left cable for a lot of very good reasons. It’s more about a competitive marketplace, but we still need to be concerned about the dominance cable has over the broadband connection because consumers are really only enjoying the competition in the video marketplace because of that broadband connection and because cable to date has not thwarted that competition.
Reggie Rucker: Can you help me understand where Charter fits into this equation? You mentioned some concerns about cable getting into the broadband space. Can you make that connection for me in terms of Charter and the purchase of Time Warner and Brighthouse?
Jon Schwantes: That’s a great question. I will. We’ll back up a little bit. If you just look at cable video and broadband, Comcast is still the biggest cable company in the country. Charter’s number two. At the time of the merger Charter I think was number four, and Time Warner Cable was number two. Two and four got together and became even bigger. I think it made Charter four times as big as what they were at the time.
What’s really fascinating about this industry is Comcast and Charter do not compete head-to-head. If you look at a map of what we call in the industry, their footprint, where are Comcast subscribers, where are charter subscribers? It’s like a crazy blotches here and there typically around the country, but they don’t overlap. Now, there are exceptions like Verizon Fios will compete head-to-head with Comcast and Charter in some markets, but they’re not huge, but they’re significant, but that’s what’s really, really interesting about this marketplace.
Why is that important? Yes, we’re seeing competition on the video side and that’s thanks to broadband, but you have consumers way too many, on the order of millions, who when you talk about broadband, it’s only Charter, it’s only Comcast. If you are in the right neighborhood in a big city, and let’s be honest, the wealthy neighborhoods, you’ll see some competition. You’ll see an upstart like RCN, but by and large there are way too many consumers that only have one choice of broadband, and that’s typically provided by Comcast or Charter.
I don’t want to guess, but I want to say those two cable companies alone, it is more than half the country gets their broadband from either Charter or Comcast. That’s concerning. Now, that might change. I know industry will tell you wireless competes with us now. People can just use their 5G connection and I want to be honest, yes, that is growing and exciting for consumers if someday they can wire their home with a 5G connection, but when we’re talking about 2023, we’re not there yet.
Reggie Rucker: Let me go ahead and follow up on that point. You laid out this footprint, was there something that Charter was seeking to accomplish? Were they trying to move into territories where they didn’t have a footprint yet? What was the incentive that they were seeking, the advantage that they were seeking to gain by making this purchase of Time Warner, Brighthouse?
Jon Schwantes: A little bit of context in this industry, Comcast bought NBC Universal in 2010, 2011, and that was huge because they already were the largest cable company, but now they bought a huge broadcaster with all that contact. In it, I’ll just be honest and use some colorful language, scared the shit out of people.
They’re going to have all this NBC universal content and they’re the largest cable company in the country and all these other cable companies and video providers are going to need that NBC content. Is Comcast going to put people over a barrel? It was a moment, but that merger was approved with conditions. Different story for a different podcast.
Time Warner Cable was spun off of Time Warner in 2009. They were always corner of odd. They were a completely separate company, they never changed the name, people were kind of confused like is Time Warner Cable, Time Warner? I’m like no, it’s this new thing called Time Warner Cable. But you kind of got the feeling like are they in this for the long haul?
They were the number two cable company in the country. They had 16 million customers, so it was this lucrative, kind of putting on my old Wall Street hat. A lucrative prize and who’s going to buy Time Warner Cable? As this happens, and I’m not an economist, I’m not a finance guy, I’m a lawyer in DC, but their stock prices going up. This is all great for shareholders or Time Warner Cable.
Comcast took a shot at it, they gave it a run and they were going to acquire Time Warner Cable and was focused on the positive. That merger was shot down. Department of Justice, FCC said no. Number one and number two, typically in antitrust law, that’s a hard sell even in Washington.
That Left Time Warner Cable like are there any other suitors and Charter came up and is like we would like it. Why? The simplest way I explain this is looking at restaurants and franchises. Let’s say I own three McDonald’s and let’s say it’s profitable. At the time, 2014, 2015 cable companies were super profitable.
They had monopolies, they didn’t compete against each other, they had this broadband business, and on the video side, those margins were huge. So why have three McDonald’s when I can have 30? I think sometimes we overthink things in Washington, and especially in this policy space. It was about this is profitable and let’s gobble them up. That’s exactly what they did. They being Charter, made themselves four times bigger.
I also think at the time, these cable companies, they’re very savvy, they’re savvy business people. They knew which way the wind was blowing. They knew that streaming video was starting to eat their lunch. What do we need more of? Where is the new monopoly? Broadband. If I could suddenly get more than 20 million broadband subscriptions, absolutely they wanted a larger footprint of a profitable business, and they also knew ha-ha, broadband monopoly, and I can get this, especially after Comcast got rejected, we’ll probably get this merger approved. And it was.
Luke Gannon: Jon, as you mentioned earlier, and you have throughout this podcast, there’s not one, but two federal agencies that were regulating this merger, the Federal Communications Commission and the DOJ. They mandated that Charter agree to seven years worth of conditions.
Can you talk a little bit about what those conditions were and how this merger actually ended up going through? What was the government’s response? Why did it end up being okay?
Jon Schwantes: Antitrust law can get complicated. They look at markets and they look at market shares. They did acknowledge that Charter and Time Warner Cable and Brighthouse Networks didn’t compete head-to-head with each other. At antitrust, we look at horizontal mergers and vertical cultures.
Horizontal, the classic example is if Coke bought Pepsi. You then would have no competition, you take number one and number two, soft drink and companies and all of that competition would go away because all of a sudden, now let’s say Coke has 99% of the software business in the United States, that would be a bad merger.
But when you look at cable, it’s like they don’t really compete against each other. Comcast was scary because they just bought NBC Universal and again, number one and number two rarely ever get approved. But this was like there’s not really an antitrust concern. The FCC can look at things in a little softer lens because it’s not exactly a pure antitrust review at the FCC, it’s more of a public interest review, so they can extract some concessions out of the merging parties.
I can tell you, having been on all sides of these transactions, they want to get to yes. So they agreed to, let’s see, the big ones from that one, no data caps. Yay, that’s fantastic. Data caps on the fixed broadband market are consumer killers and until at least for seven years, Charter wasn’t able to inflict them upon consumers. We’ve just had the anniversary, so let’s not get too excited. Those merger conditions have since expired, but there were no data caps.
Comcast charges data caps, Cox Communications, big broadband cable company here in the Mid-Atlantic, they charge data caps and it’s really, really anti-consumer on the broadband side, just to be clear. Also, another great merger condition was no interconnection fees.
Let’s get down the telecom rabbit hole, but basically Charter agreed that if we’re allowed to merge with Time Warner Cable and Brighthouse that we won’t inflict interconnection fees, meaning we won’t tell Netflix and we won’t tell Google, YouTube TV that you have to pay us to connect to our networks.
There was a big dust up, I want to say 10 years ago, between Comcast and Netflix. Basically Comcast is like you pay us an interconnection fee or this merger condition was saying look, you can’t extract these anti-consumer things because there was a feeling of we knew consumers were cutting the cord, but the fear would… Big cable that controls broadband and they importantly still had that monopoly so a lot of consumers have nowhere else to go but get broadband from Charter.
Would they charge so many fees against Netflix and other streaming videos to make it more expensive to then make their old school cable video cost competitive, which it rarely was at the time and still isn’t. They agreed to that.
Another one, which I love in the book of did that merger condition happen? Your guess is as good as mine. Comcast agreed to expand their broadband business to 2 million new customers, 1 million being in markets where there already was competition. Now, I wish I could tell you I looked up to see if that merger condition was satisfied. I honestly do not know, and that is a great segue to the biggest problem with these merger conditions.
Who enforces them and how do we know? Let’s say we found out they didn’t expand, they didn’t honor that. They [inaudible 00:20:09] data caps into connection fees. Great, but did they really expand their broadband for this? If we found out they didn’t, is the government really going to go back and break up Charter and Time Warner Cable? Short answer is no, they are not.
Reggie Rucker: I wanted to follow up, actually precisely on that. The government found their way to yes. Were groups like yours and other community advocacy groups, were you all satisfied with the terms that they laid out or was there a fight that continued to some degree? Tell us about what the response was there.
Jon Schwantes: Yeah, it’s not the best analogy. It’s like the game is over and you look at we won some, we lost some, but a lot of times people move on to the next one. I know at the time when Comcast announced their proposed merger to Time Warner Cable, remember they wanted to buy them first, immediately there was a public interest and industry coalition, and I want to say it had a real unoriginal name like Stop Mega Comcast.
Consumer Reports was part of that coalition, a few other DC groups like Public Knowledge and Common Cause, but that was fun because some of the business rivals who were scared of big cable like Dish Network [inaudible 00:21:30] Coalition, if memory serves. That’s just your classic let’s do some media buys, not really so much for the nonprofits like ourselves, but a coordinated lobbying effort.
You can file at the FCC, you can oppose a merger, for example. I once wrote a comment opposing the Sinclair Tribune merger and you just explained how all these fantastic reasons why the commission should find it’s not in the public interest. All a bunch of lawyer gobbley gook. That was the stop [inaudible 00:22:03] Comcast. That succeeded. The government stopped that merger and Comcast withdrew.
Shortly a few months later it was like let’s get fired up because Charter’s trying to buy Time Warn Cable. I think the same Motley crew, including Consumer Reports, renamed it the Stop Mega Cable Coalition and much the same, let’s try to stop it, let’s get people fired up. But there was color commentary, a resignation of I don’t know if lightning’s going to strike twice here. We’re going to do it, we’re going to oppose it and raise a ruckus.
Luke Gannon: One of the things over this season that we’ve learned, Jon, is that these merging companies often make promises that never come to fruition. I was reading that Charter specifically claimed that the acquisition would allow it to improve its broadband network throughout the country leading to faster speeds and better video products.
It has now been almost 10 years since this merger happened. Is that true? Were Charter’s claims true? How has this looked for communities across the US?
Jon Schwantes: Let’s look at some facts. 2016 compared to 2023, I’m happy to say that broadband speeds have increased by a significant amount. That is a good thing. Most consumers get broadband from a private company. Video, since the merger happened, costs for that video product have gone through the roof and what they do, they charge a broadcast TV fee, that is a broken part of the video marketplace by where cable pays broadcasters for their content and it is broken.
All cable decided to do is we’re just going to break it out into a junk fee and we’re going to charge that fee to consumers because we can’t figure out this broken marketplace broadcasters. What started off in 2009, 2010 as a dollar or two, most consumers are like what’s this broadcast TV fee? Cable being cheeky about it, not really telling folks that they’re the ones charging it. Boy, it’s got a really good name right up there with the regional sports fees. These are all junk fees charged by the cable industry.
It’s basically like if I decided, and we did a report on this a few years ago, if a serial company said The cost of cardboard is really expensive, we’re going to do a cardboard box fee and we’re just going to keep breaking that out, even though most people thought well, I never paid for the cardboard box. Shoot, I’ll just take the bag and you can keep your stupid box.
In broadcast TV fee, those are now well over $20 and they’re mandatory. So for those poor consumers who are either uncomfortable cutting the cord or what have you, and that is not in the advertised price, so you’re like oh wow, broadband and cable for 90 bucks, that’s not much more than YouTube TV.
I’m like, yeah, right. Wait until you pay the fees, you’re going to be paying close $150 a month. I would say that the video side of it has not been good for consumers, especially for those consumers who are stuck with just one provider and like I said, aren’t comfortable cutting the cord and maybe going with a virtual option. They’re paying more than ever for that old school cable video product.
Reggie Rucker: We’re going to spin this forward now. Put your genie hat on, get your crystal ball out. What do you think the future of this industry looks like?
Jon Schwantes: I just testified at a hill hearing in September where we looked at the future of the video marketplace and we went through it and it has totally changed. That is a good thing and that is because of broadband. Where I get a little antsy is what’s the future of broadband? Because so much of that competition in the video space is dependent upon broadband.
As far as [inaudible 00:26:01] of the industry, some analysts will say the old school cable TV video product is in a death spiral, and the number suggests that. When this merger happened, they had 20 million, 25 million subscribers. Now they’ve lost 10 million in seven years. I don’t think a lot of those subscribers are coming back. It’s a pain in the butt for cable to keep doing video and having to deal with broadcasters.
What maybe isn’t in the news stories is it’s not a very profitable line of business. They want to shift to broadband, which really isn’t regulated thanks to the repeal of net neutrality and subject of another podcast, but broadband’s where it’s at, baby. It’s unregulated, they can charge whatever they want, and by and large, until wireless catches up and becomes a true competitor, and hopefully that’s me being optimistic, it will, it’s getting there. But right now they’re still enjoying monopoly rents.
As we talk about monopolies on the podcast here, that’s still one of the best ones going. Get into broadband, do it through a cable wire, and there are many towns where you’re the only game in town and you can charge whatever you want.
Reggie Rucker: The thing I was just curious about is I have Hulu and get my live TV through Hulu, and it feels like at this point, and I don’t even think I’m exaggerating, it feels like every three or four months, we’re going to add extra $5, we’re going to add extra $10, we’re going to… Two to three years ago, it’s probably about a $50 package and now it’s creeping up towards $100.
There were some comments in our chat the other day that it was like it’s basically becoming cable. It’s all the channels wrapped up and it’s $100, $150. Do you have some insights, just your own commentary on what’s happening in that Hulu versus YouTube Live, versus… What’s your take on how these bundles are playing out?
Jon Schwantes: I do. There’s two giant things to consider here that help inform and answer this question. Number one, whether you are a streaming service like Hulu or YouTube TV or old school cable like Charter or Comcast, it’s for a lot of reasons, so expensive to get content from the content producers. Who are the content producers? They’re Disney, they own an ESPN, all the Disney channels, ABC. They’re CBS Viacom.
That content, and a lot of it is driven by live sports is what we call must have content. It’s a free market negotiation, but it’s increasingly expensive because the content holders know that in order for Hulu to be successful and do a live-streaming service, they’re going to need to have the NFL games on in the fall. That content is getting expensive for all video distributors.
The second thing is something unique to the streaming industry. This is everything from Netflix to Paramount+, to I think HBO is calling itself Max now, Disney+ and it is Hulu, which has Hulu live and YouTube TV. It’s very consumer friendly. I can sign up, pay for a month, watch my Packers lose and get irritated, and then cancel my subscription. I don’t have to return a set top box, I don’t have to talk to somebody on the phone for an hour, I just do it all online and I’m done.
I think that’s great for consumers and all of our survey data at Consumer Reports shows that consumers are high on streaming, and one of it is their customer service is very consumer friendly. But it creates churn, churn and burn, whatever you want to call it, and it’s real. For as many customers as the streaming services signs up, they could lose the same within a month.
We’re trying to figure out how do I make this sticky? How do I make it so a consumer subscribes, they got to stick around for three months. They do that by dripping out their episodes once a week. They do that by, and they know it’s going to hurt and they might lose more subscribers, increasing their prices. They’re getting it from both ends. The content holders are jacking up their prices and streaming is trying to figure out, we had a really bad investor call, we got to make more money, we got to increase prices.
I think it will get resolved. I think it was really the subject… It’s also another fascinating subject, but what we see consolidation in streaming services, will we see what we’re seeing that they’re going to actually license their content to each other. What do I mean by that?
Disney told Netflix a few years ago when they launched Disney+, screw you, we’re not going to share any more Marvel, any more Star Wars movies that’s only going to be on Disney+. If consumers want to watch all nine Star Wars movies, they’re going to have to come here.
Most consumers are like fine, I’ll get it for a month, pay you seven bucks, watch all the movies and then cancel you. They’re figuring out like we actually do make money when we license that to Netflix, we do make money when we license that to Amazon Prime, and so I think we’re going to see that in the streaming industry.
There are also bigger questions, bigger antitrust questions about are we going to keep tolerating these big content holders bundling all of their packaging? What do I mean by that? It doesn’t mean Charter goes to Disney and said we just want ESPN, don’t want ESPN2, we don’t want the Disney channels, just want ESPN. Disney’s like no, you’ve got to take all seven of our channels, or you know where the door is.
More cutting edge sort of policy wonks in this space saying well what about wholesale bundling? Makes my head spin. But that would have to come from the government and having worked in politics, I don’t think it’s happening anytime soon.
That’s where we’re at. It is really two main reasons and I don’t know how that’s going to get resolved. Other than that we encourage consumers to… Well, to your question, the cable replacement looks and feels like cable, like Hulu Live and YouTube TV. Those are cost pressures that are causing those increases. I think you mentioned it, you still also have to pay for a broadband connection.
Reggie Rucker: I wanted to close out with the last question that we ask all of our guests, which is to recommend a book that has influenced the way you think about your work, the way you go about living and living out your purpose. What is something that you would recommend to people who enjoyed this conversation and want to get deeper into the thinking behind it?
Jon Schwantes: I think for me, I would pan out a little bit and think about a book that I read more than 20 years ago that informs my work and the fight in these issues. That would be Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. Now, it’s much broader in sweep, going all the way back to Columbus’s arrival on this continent more than 500 years ago, and it’s a little heavy-handed in parts and a little reductive in others.
But by and large, what I think Professors Zinn does in that work is tell the untold part of the story. I think for me, realizing corporate power and consumer power and how this country is set up, and let’s just take broadband, it truly is for a lot of consumers, take it or leave it. You either pay $120 a month for broadband, or get out of here. And you don’t have broadband, which I think we all agree is a public utility and should be treated as such and should not be priced at whatever the broadband provider who has a monopoly wants to price it at.
I think that book helps understand of like, no, no, no, no, no. There is more to the story and at the end of the day, as my former senator told me, and it helps inform, these are private companies. It is not a crime in this country to make a profit if you do so legally, but they’re not doing things by and large out of the goodness of their heart. They’re doing things to make money and increase their stock price and make their board happy.
It’s not to make, not in all cases, make their consumers happy. Now, where there’s competition, absolutely you want to make your consumers happy because you need them to choose you instead of the other company. But when there’s no competition, that’s a problem and what I describe as the stuck consumer. You’re stuck, you’re in a take it or leave it proposition and in that scenario, the corporation has just about all the power. That book helped me and continues to help me understand that there’s more to the story.
Reggie Rucker: Thanks for this, Jon. This was really great.
Luke Gannon: Thank you so much, Jon. This was truly an enlightening episode. Now, if you are interested in Jon’s book recommendation A People’s History of the United States, ILSR has a book library through allows you to choose a local bookstore of your choice and gives them a share of the profit. It also helps nonprofits like ours. If you buy a book from our ILSR store, we will receive 10% of the proceeds.
That’s right. If you can’t make a donation right now, but still just really want that book, please click on the show notes for this episode and buy the book at Now I’ll pass it to my co-host who always brings me energy, Reggie Rocker.
Reggie Rucker: Thanks, Luke. Great work as always. Jon, thank you again for sharing your story and deep insights with us today. I enjoyed that conversation so much. Side note, Jon and his wife, I’m told get some credit for this, have impeccable fashion sense. I need to go shopping.
Anyways, I hope you all enjoyed this episode as much as we did. If you’ve made it this far, I assume that means you did, so please share it with even just one person you think will enjoy it too.
I keep talking about our goal of 10,000 listens, but it’s not just a number to us. You sharing this episode brings more people into this conversation that we must have as communities about what type of society we want to live in.
Do we want to live in a society dominated by big corporations that have one interest, how deep they can line the pockets of their executives and shareholders? Or do we want to live in a society where communities, neighbors who are interested in seeing each other succeed and thrive because when my neighbor is winning with good schools, and job opportunities, and thriving businesses, and culture with stable infrastructure and a circular economy that preserves our planet for the future, that’s not just them winning. I win too. We all win.
That’s the conversation we need more people involved in, and that’s why we need you to share this episode. If you’re not a subscriber to the podcast yet, make sure to hit that subscribe button so you know when every new episode drops. Of course, your donations are essential to help us keep this podcast going and support the research and resources that we make available on our website for free. We truly welcome and appreciate it all.
Last, if you have feedback for us or want to share a story about how your community approaches this issue, send us an email to We’d love to share these on a special mailbag episode one day. We’ll keep an eye out.
This show is produced by Luke Gannon and me, Reggie Rucker. This podcast is edited by Luke Gannon and Andrew Frank. The music for this season is also composed by Andrew Frank. Thank you so much for listening to Building Local Power.


Like this episode? Please help us reach a wider audience by sharing Building Local Power with your family and friends. We would love your feedback. Please email Subscribe on the podcast platform of your choice.


Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Android | RSS


Music Credit: Andrew Frank

Photo Credit: Em McPhie, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Podcast produced by Reggie Rucker and Luke Gannon

Podcast edited by Luke Gannon and Andrew Frank

Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Follow the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on Twitter and Facebook and, for monthly updates on our work, sign-up for our ILSR general newsletter.

Avatar photo
Follow Luke Gannon:
Luke Gannon

Luke Gannon is the Research and Communications Associate for the Independent Business team.

Avatar photo
Latest posts from Luke
Avatar photo
Follow Reggie Rucker:
Reggie Rucker

As Communications Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Reggie develops communications strategies and leads campaigns to build public support for ILSR local power initiatives. Contact Reggie with media inquiries.