Interview Date: July 31, 2018
Interview Location: Anaheim, CA USA
Interviewer: Lela Cocoros
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Cocoros: Hi, I’m Lela Cocoros and today is July 31, 2018, and we are in Anaheim, California, for the Independent Cable Show. I’m here with Matt Polka, who is president of the American Cable Association. Matt, thank you so much for joining us.
Polka: It’s my pleasure once again to be here and help support the Cable Center.
Cocoros: This has been a fantastic show so far and I know you’re very busy, so thank you for joining us.
Polka: Always happy to spend time with the Cable Center and thank you for coming to be part of our Thirteenth Annual Independent Show, where we try to make this event—as many say, like cable used to be. A fun family event with colleagues who come together, not only to connect, but learn, but also enjoy their company.
Cocoros: Great. Well, I know that several years ago, you did a very comprehensive oral history for the Cable Center. But why don’t we just do a quick recap of how you got into the industry and your career, early in your career, to the point where you’re now with the ACA and have been for many years.
Polka: I think last time we talked, I had less gray hair, and that may be due to the fact that things in Washington are more difficult to function than ever. But yes, my career in cable, like many that I have talked to over the years and met with—whether members or otherwise—my career was accidental. I actually got a degree in journalism where I was a newspaper reporter for a couple of years and really enjoyed news and newspapering. That’s a comment in and of itself—newspapering, which doesn’t really exist in the same way as it did. Even when the last time I did my oral history. But I was a reporter, but I also always wanted to go to law school. I wanted to become a lawyer; I wanted to become a trial lawyer, in fact. So when I graduated in 1986, I went to a firm in Pittsburgh, where I lived—it’s my hometown—and wanted to be, have a spot in the litigation department, and they basically said, “We have no spots. What else would you like to do?” I said, “Well, I have a background in communications. I was a reporter.” And I’m thinking First Amendment, and all of these things that a journalism student or a journalist would think of. And they said, “Great. We have this terrific new practice area in communications called cable television, where we’re doing lots of corporate deals, transactions, agreements.” And they actually said this to me. They said, “And that’s communications, right?” As if they were trying to sell this to me.
So as a young kid just out of law school who was afraid to say no, I didn’t say no, so I became a cable lawyer representing, ironically, many companies that are still are our members or have been our members through the years. Really learning about independent companies, smaller companies. And I did programming deals for them, mergers and acquisitions, stock transactions, asset transactions, things of that nature. And after several years of doing that, I actually went in-house with a partner that I worked with and became associate general counsel of a small cable company based in Pittsburgh. So for seven years as associate general counsel first and then general counsel for the organization, I was responsible for all the legal matters for a small company called Star Cable Associates. It was based in Pittsburgh, we had about 72,000 subscribers throughout the country, primarily in the Southeast and in the Southwest and some in the Ohio-Pennsylvania area. But I really learned the guts of what it takes to run a small business. From the operational technical customer service side of things as well as the political and regulatory and the operational legal aspects of the company.
In 1992, when I was general counsel of the company, Congress re-regulated the cable industry. They reimposed rate regulation. As a representative of a small company, we kind of felt, well, hey, all of the things Congress is complaining about, and why they justify regulating our industry, we didn’t do. We’re out serving our communities, we’re helping to be part of the fabric of the community and nobody was really speaking up for us to say, these companies are smaller, they’re unique and they should be treated differently. So my company, myself, as well as 150 others came together in May of 1993 at the Airport Hilton in Kansas City where we came together for an emergency national meeting to not only talk about these problems that had a unique and disproportionate impact on smaller businesses in the cable industry, but then how we could create a voice. So at that meeting an association known as the Small Cable Business Association was born. That was May of 1993, and our association was a volunteer association for four years. So we did this by connecting with Congress through calls, letters, FAX trees—FAX, believe it or not, was the highest degree of technology we had at the time—to really begin to make our voice known. And I started to go to Washington much more regularly on behalf of the association. And then in a few years, by 1997, we realized you can’t do Washington on a volunteer basis. You have to be there full time, you have to be committed, you have to be willing to plant roots. So let’s go find someone. Let’s go hire someone to do this for us every day. And I was on the board and we looked for lots of people in DC—whether they were staff people or former members of Congress. Or other regulators. One of the problems was we didn’t really have much money, so we couldn’t attract kind of the talent. So the board said, well, why don’t we ask Matt? And that’s pretty much how my career as an association head and as a lobbyist was born. But every step has been literally one door closing and another opening, leading me to this spot where I have been blessed and honored and privileged to serve our members literally for 25 years.
Cocoros: I love the story about how you changed the name from SCBA to ACA. Because you’re such a baseball fan.
Polka: And there’s a little bit more to that as well. At the time, when we were the Small Cable Business Association, SCBA, the satellite industry, which was developing as a competitor to cable, was creating its own voice. And we have to remember back then, the satellite/DBS industry wasn’t just DISH and DirecTV. There were other entrants; there were other participants. So they had their own association known as the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association—SBCA. And we were SCBA. So the amount of confusion between the two groups was incredible. So that was another reason why in 1999 we decided to change the name. So there were three aspects of that. One, we wanted to avoid confusion: SCBA / SBCA. In fact, we had people at the FCC who told us, “You know, you so have improved our copy editing because now we can make a difference.” So we wanted to avoid that confusion. As you mentioned, I’m a baseball fan and so I thought, “We have the National Cable association, why don’t we be sort of the American League?” That’s how simple that came about.
And then last, but not least, at the time, it was kind of novel. Just about every association had four letters in their name. Actually, there was a fourth point. There were four letters in their name. So we said, “Let’s just be three.” So we simply became the American Cable Association. And the last bit of reason why we changed to the American Cable Association was as a small organization trying to get a word in edgewise, trying to get to the top of someone’s list, we thought, well, let’s be “A.” We’ll be literally at the top of the list…
Cocoros: The whole Yellow Pages trick.
Polka: So there we were. Those were the four reasons why we changed the name and it’s served us very well ever since.
Cocoros: That’s great. Let’s move forward and talk a little bit about what’s going on these days. I know there was just recently a decision by the FCC regarding the net neutrality. That was a very positive thing for your members. Maybe talk a little bit about that.
Polka: Sure. And it’s ironic as well because the last time we talked, my comments were focused on the harm of imposition of net neutrality regulation, and how that would create a chilling effect on our members and the deployment of all Internet service providers to provide more broadband. And in fact, what we saw with the net neutrality order that was implemented in 2015 is that is what has happened. That is exactly what happened. Broadband investment decreased; it had a chilling effect on our members’ willingness and ability to deploy more broadband into the most remote areas of our country. Where Washington says we need to get more rural broadband out there, we saw just the opposite. We saw companies that are in the financial markets less willing to lend money to our members, so the capital markets dried up. And basically, everything we predicted would happen, did happen. Just the threat of that regulation dried up investment. So along comes a change in the election, in the last presidential election of 2016, and then the ascension of Ajit Pai as chairman, who in his tenure had fought against the heavy hand of broadband regulation, now as chairman having the ability to roll back the Title II aspect of net neutrality regulation. To basically say, look, we should not treat Internet service providers in a 21st century technology with regulations that go back to the 20th century and to 1934. It just makes no sense to treat Internet service providers as common carriers.
So he removed that threat of regulation. Immediately what we saw was investment flowing into the market, and our members deploying more services. It’s amazing. You walk around here today, you talk to members. They’re talking about deploying gig Internet speeds in some of the remotest places in our country, which is absolutely amazing. But that’s because of that order, and because of the confidence that they had that they could build a network to meet their customers’ demands, but also get a return on that investment.
So for us, at the American Cable Association, looking ahead to our members’ interests, the most important thing that we can do is to ensure that that order stays and remains as the law of the land, because that does a couple of things. One, as I said, it promotes investment and deployment, which customers want more of. It allows our members to be able to recover their costs as they build the networks. Plus, what it does—even though Chairman Pai rolled back a number of things related to previous orders, it allows our members to better communicate with their subscribers, given all the political misinformation about net neutrality to say, look, we’re here as part of this community. It is in our interest to give you the service that you want and desire without blocking, without throttling, without discriminating, without creating any kind of anti-competitive fast lanes. Because we want to work with you in making sure that our community is as well-connected as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, DC. And that’s what we’re seeing.
So we’re very happy with Chairman Pai’s order. We really hope—one of our goals would be that Congress would actually see, rather than allowing this open Internet/net neutrality be basically a tennis ball that goes back and forth depending on who wins the presidential election, which is not good for consumers or for industry. We really hope that Congress and the leaders there, perhaps after the November 2018, election, will come together and say, look we can solve this problem. We can ensure by law that we take the open Internet principles of no blocking, discriminating, paid prioritization, throttling, etc., and we put that into legislation that protects consumers.
And it maybe also applies to perhaps one of the greater threats going forward for our members’ companies, and for consumers. And that is the growth of big tech: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, and the control that they have, not only of consumers’ data and how they use it, monetize it, in violation, in my view, of privacy rules that we live by as ISPs. But then also controlled speech. It was so fascinating to me, earlier this year, at a conference that I went to where Nicholas Thompson, who’s the editor of “Wired” magazine, was speaking. And one of the things he said about these big tech companies was ironically, today, even though we have a First Amendment that protects freedom of speech, that speech today is really governed more by big tech than it is by the law itself. And that’s pretty scary, for these companies that have far greater capitalization than even the largest companies in our industry, whether Comcast, AT&T or others. Big tech and what they have in terms of capitalization, is so much greater, and they can do so much more harm when it comes to anti-competitive action. Anti-competitive action gets consumers misuse of data, and controlling that speech in very, very scary ways, that it really worries me. And it’s something that I have on my horizon as I think about what we are doing at the American Cable Association.
Certainly, last but not least, thinking about big tech and why there’s potentially a threat out there, what’s to stop a Google, tomorrow, from coming to any cable operator and saying, hey, I know this because the data shows me this, and in fact, I sell the data. That 95% of your ISP customers use Google as a homepage. So why don’t you start paying me $1 per subscriber per month, or $2 per subscriber per month. Or something like that. Facebook could do the same. We know that every one of your customers uses Facebook. How about you pay us $1 or $2 for access, or else they’re blocked, or they’re throttled, or they’re discriminated against. That can happen. And there is nothing in our laws or regulations that can prevent that.
I think if there were to be legislation, it would need to focus on putting into practice the net neutrality principles that apply not only to Internet service providers, but also to big tech, these so-called edge providers.
Cocoros: How do you see this playing out? I know you can’t necessarily predict the future, but are you thinking that they might see it from both sides?
Cocoros: I’m seeing more negative press that were about some of these companies.
Polka: Let’s put it this way. Before—and maybe this has to do simply with the change in election and the fact that big tech had a well-worn path into the White House before 2016 and after 2016—you know, they’re not as well-accepted, to be honest with you. You know, I think it has a lot to do with more disclosure about what these big tech companies—Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.—are doing, and how they’re controlling information, monetizing data and taking advantage of information that an Internet service provider couldn’t. But to use it in what are very threatening ways. Whether it’s accepting money from outside groups that are trying to influence our elections or to use their platform to promote some causes rather than others. To become more political in many ways. And what’s good about, I think, at least the development of the news, is there’s a much greater recognition in Washington today that the big edge providers, these big tech companies, do seriously pose a threat to consumers and to our economy and to our political process. Now what that means in terms of how Washington reacts is always the tough question because Washington is very dysfunctional. It’s hard to get members to come together on issues and this is a very big and complicated one. I would say this: what is likely to happen in my view in the near future, and I’m probably talking about over the next few years from today, is that Washington now accepts Chairman Pai’s order that deregulates Internet service providers—well, some parts of Washington do; other parts—the Democrats—are certainly trying to reinstitute it, but at least right now the law is Internet service providers are deregulated. So essentially Internet service providers and big tech are both deregulated.
So for now Congress and the FCC will watch that circumstance happening, and we’ll see what happens. But I would predict that going forward with certainly the disclosures of anti-competitive harm, anti-consumer harm that we’ve seen from the big tech companies, that if there is to be further action at some point, Congressional or otherwise, related to Internet service providers, it would also include some measure of regulation with the edge providers, too. It just has to. I cannot see how we could allow in our laws and our country a circumstance where Internet service providers would be regulated who are not blocking, throttling, creating paid prioritization fast lanes, discriminating. And these other big tech companies—the Facebooks of the world, the Googles of the world—who are doing that, they are blocking; they are preventing some voices and not others. They are abusing customer data. I could not see how they could not be regulated as well.
Cocoros: I think a lot of it has to do with how you tell your story as well, the industry. And cable has a lot of issues with the customers and the whole credibility and so I think it’s time for the cable industry to really push more for kind of telling the story, communicating why it’s important for ISPs to not have these restrictions. I think that’s kind of a piece that’s a little bit missing. You even have Burger King doing commercials about…
Polka: You know what’s so ironic about that, and I actually tweeted about this a long time ago when that came out. How wrong it was. And just the level of misinformation—
Polka: —that largely was created by these big tech companies, who want to put the onus of regulation on Internet service providers who are their competitors. Big tech does not want to be regulated, does not want to be governed, does not want to be told to do. They don’t want any of that, but they want their competitors to be saddled with all of the regulations they resist. So that whole campaign was absolutely wrong because Internet service providers aren’t the ones who are blocking, throttling. As I was coming down today, there was news about Twitter, who has routinely gone ahead to block and throw out certain accounts, which quite frankly have a certain political leaning, and deemed certain accounts as objectionable or even hateful when there was a candidate running for office who said something very mean about the First Lady. And it was awful. Where Twitter did nothing to restrict that account, to delete it, to dismiss it as it did others. I mean, that’s wrong. Standards have to be standards. These companies—and it reflects that fact these companies have enormous control over the message, over speech and over consumers. And what consumers see. So, yes, I think that is something that we as an industry have to be very forthright and say, we’re part of the solution to help provide our customers the services they want. And we’re not causing these problems. So allow us to compete and allow us to give our customers what they want, and you can be assured that we will be a partner in this with you.
Cocoros: So just hammer that message out.
Polka: Exactly, exactly.
Cocoros: Let’s move on to kind of where you see the impact. What is the impact of the cable industry going forward in this kind of regulatory mess?
Polka: I think it really importantly comes down to our role in not only our national and global economy, but also being a vital part of developing and building what is now recognized to be an important part of our nation’s infrastructure. The broadband highways of the world are just as important as the Interstate system, where we drive from state to state and coast to coast. I think our country recognizes that we cannot be successful as a company in a global marketplace and in small towns, you know, big towns, medium-size towns, without ensuring that every citizen has access to a reliable high-speed broadband connection.
So our focus is what do we have to do to commit to that each and every day? And that certainly is the mission of our members to make sure that they are first and foremost broadband providers giving their customers, whether residential or business, the broadband connections they have. And then building that out into other places, whether it’s medicine. I mean having the ability of someone in a rural area to be able to be seen by someone, for instance, at a Cleveland Clinic or a Mayo Clinic, or something like that. Which can happen with a broadband connection. Our schools, our colleges, our universities—ensuring that they have the connectivity they need to educate our leaders of tomorrow. Other institutions: governmental institutions. Just being part of the fabric of a community. To help promote local origination programming, etc. That’s our commitment. We want to be part of that, and we want to ensure that we are that provider who facilitates that broadband wire into the home, into the business, into the hospitals, into the schools, into the institutions, into the government buildings. And we’re not going to stop, because that’s our future.
Cocoros: Do you have any stories you want to share a little bit about your journey from your journalism days to cable?
Polka: Yes, I really do. A couple of things I learned—and I don’t even know if they teach this any longer and gee whiz, I don’t know how would you teach journalists today. But one of the things that has helped me as a practical matter probably more than anything else in my life, is the fact that when I was a young student going into high school, my mom said, “Matthew, you are going to take a full year of typing.” So I was like one of the few guys in my teacher’s class, my typing class, but I took a full year of typing and I learned how to type and to type well. And then I learned, as a result of being someone who went into journalism school, and the nature of journalism—which is organizing the information into what we called an “inverted pyramid.” You know, you start with the most important news, then you work down to the least important through the course of the story. It helped me not only to become a better writer, but even a better lawyer and a better advocate because now I use those skills, which include typing as well as advocating. Using those skills as a journalist to realize that when I’m speaking to a member of Congress, or an FCC chairman, or testifying, I’ve got to give them the information they need to know and then we can work through the details. So all of that background has really helped me to be a more effective advocate, which is something I work on each and every day as well as just speaking in general. But it’s been a tremendous thing. I would encourage anybody in any industry—and this is something we’re losing today—learn the ability to write and to write well. It is so, so important because most of what I do, most of what I’ve done as a lawyer, as an advocate in my business, is written more than spoken. I do a lot of speaking, but I do a lot more writing and we do a lot more filing and we do a lot of other things from a written perspective. The ability to write well—if someone writes well, they will automatically put themselves at the top of the pile because you can easily distinguish good writing from bad writing. To me, when you see a good writer, it just changes the nature of your perception of that person. So in their message, because it’s more credible, it’s more thoughtful, it’s more concise. That’s maybe one thing I’ve learned, too, is fewer words are usually better. So if you can learn to be concise, which my journalism background helped me to do, you can be more effective.
So very, very practical things that I’ve learned that have really—as I said, every step along the way, it’s like the good Lord wanted me to be here where I am today as an advocate for small cable companies, but you know, I’m so glad to be where I am and it’s all come to this point where I’m very privileged to do what I do for a long time, and hopefully for many more years to come.
Cocoros: Well, thank you very much. The industry is very grateful to have you as well.
Polka: It’s been my pleasure actually. It’s a service, it’s a labor of love. Our members—I said this yesterday at the opening of our show here at the Independent Show—I mean, our members truly do inspire us. They really are our superheroes. We see what they do each and every day and how difficult their circumstances are, and how much they appreciate the work that we do on their behalf, whether as an advocate at ACA or whether as a business partner at NCTC. I mean, they see that, and they appreciate it because they don’t have the staffs, they don’t have the depth, they don’t have the resources to be able to do all these things. So when we come in to be their partner in those aspects, it is much appreciated. And it’s very meaningful to them, and it’s meaningful to us as well. So we’re honored to do what we do every day and we’re going to keep on doing it.
Cocoros: Well, thank you very much, Matt. I appreciate your time.
Polka: My pleasure. Thanks for the time.
END OF INTERVIEW