AT&T wants to lower fees on text donations

While AT&T customers may have to wait to donate to the Obama campaign via text message, the wireless carrier could end up taking less in fees.   

AT&T is asking the Federal Election Commission for permission to charge “a substantially lower rate for political donations than we do for commercial transactions, such as ringtones, purchased by text messaging,” says Margaret Boles, an AT&T federal media relations spokeswoman. “Given the pending presidential election, we asked the FEC for an expedited decision.”

The Obama campaign is now accepting text donations from customers of Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular. The Romney campaign is expected to follow in the near future. The Obama camp can now ask supporters to text "GIVE" to 62262, Obama for America's short code.

In the FEC’s recent opinion, which paved the way for wireless carriers to begin allowing political donations via text, carriers are expected to charge “usual commercial rates” when processing donations. A deviation from that standard could constitute an “in-kind” contribution to a political committee.

But typical carrier rates loom large at 35 to 50 percent—in addition to wireless aggregators’ 5 to 15 percent charges. That money comes off the top of text donations, potentially turning a $10 donation into a $3.50 one. No word yet on the exact rates the carriers that have already signed on to permit the contributions are charging.

An advisory opinion request submitted by AT&T earlier this month argues that facilitating a customer’s ability to make political contributions is not a commercial activity but an “activity undertaken by a corporation in the public interest.” As such, “the rate would be structured as a percentage of the donor’s contribution, as a flat per text message contribution charge, or some combination of both.” And the rate would be charged equally to all aggregators of political committees and candidates.

Should the FEC not affirm AT&T’s model, the carrier says it has “serious misgivings” about allowing text donations to political committees. A lawyer for CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, declined to comment directly on AT&T’s advisory opinion request.   

Scott Goodstein, founder of the mobile firm Revolution Messaging, argues CTIA’s recommended 40 to 50 percent rate on political text donations vastly overstates the amount necessary to avoid making an “in-kind” donation to a political committee.

“It makes sense competitively and PR-wise to drop your rate and make text donations available for everybody,” says Goodstein, whose firm has its own advisory opinion request on text-to-donate before the FEC.

Goodstein’s AOR, which was discussed at an FEC meeting Thursday, asks that wireless users be allowed to text more than $50 per billing cycle to federal political committees and that those committees be allowed to share premium short codes for accepting the donations. Revolution argues these measures make text-to-donate more accessible to down-ballot campaigns. 

An FEC draft opinion released yesterday grants committees the ability to process contributions in excess of the $50-per-billing-cycle and $200-per-election-cycle limits.

Goodstein also says he’d support any carrier lowering their rates—ideally to around 8 percent, which he says remains in keeping with standard business practices.

Another point of contention is the potential sharing of short codes. The FEC tentatively approved Revolution Messaging’s bid to allow campaigns to share short codes. CTIA argues the sharing of short codes could lead to confusion over which political committee was using what short code.

Aggregators simply need to ensure keywords on the same short codes remain different enough, Goodstein says. He notes that short code sharing is standard practice and says the Mobile Giving Foundation has used dozens of shared short codes to raise millions of dollars.

Comments on the opinion the FEC released Thursday are open through August 28, after which the commission will hold a tally vote.

Follow @DaveNyczepir

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