With Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Promising Nationwide Broadband Access and Good Jobs, Communications Workers of America Launches Multi-State Effort to Regulate Broadband, Close Digital Divide

Monday, April 12, 2021

Washington, D.C. - Today, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) launched an ambitious multi-state effort to pass state legislation that would establish public utility commission oversight of broadband in public safety, network resiliency and consumer protection. Legislation has already been introduced in California, Colorado and New York, and CWA is in active conversations with policymakers in state houses across the country about its model bill, the Broadband Resiliency, Public Safety and Quality Act.

President Biden's recently introduced American Jobs Plan infrastructure package contains $100 billion for broadband, with the goal of providing universal broadband coverage and creating good jobs. CWA’s state legislative initiative complements Biden’s plan by ensuring that there will be public oversight over this critical infrastructure deployment.

“President Biden has made a powerful case for recognizing that broadband is a critical part of America’s 21st century infrastructure and for considering its effect on the lives of working people,” said CWA President Chris Shelton. “The past three decades of industry-driven deregulation have failed us. Working people need robust telecommunications services that support good jobs and full access to health care resources, public services and educational opportunities. Instead we have been left with deteriorating telephone networks and a failure to deliver next generation services to rural and low income areas.”

“Telecom industry executives said deregulation was necessary for competition and that competition would magically fix everything,” said Brenda Roberts, Vice President of CWA District 7 which covers the Mountain West, Pacific Northwest and Upper Midwest. “It hasn’t, and the public needs watch dogs we can work with to ensure this essential service is there for our communities today and into the future. Without regulation, the goal of universal broadband service is just a nice dream.”

Gigi Sohn, who served as a counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and a Benton Foundation Senior Fellow, joined CWA at a press briefing announcing the broadband regulation initiative.

“States have always had a vital role to play in overseeing our communications networks and ensuring that those networks are operated in the public interest - it's codified in the Communications Act of 1934,” said Sohn. “Unfortunately, many states abdicated that responsibility in the early part of the millennium at the behest of incumbent broadband providers. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear that broadband is essential infrastructure, it's time for states to take back that authority. I wholeheartedly support CWA’s initiative to convince states to reassert their authority over broadband and Voice over IP services.”

“With or without federal oversight, at a minimum, states must be able to protect consumers, ensure that networks can withstand ever increasing natural disasters and other threats to public safety, and collect data about broadband pricing, deployment, adoption and network resiliency,” Sohn added.

The pandemic deepened the digital divide and exposed the failures of deregulation as millions of Americans depended on the internet to work, go to school and receive health care services.

“As school buildings closed during the pandemic, students who didn’t have reliable broadband were cut off from their education entirely,” said Sandra Parker Murray, a member of the executive board of CWA Local 7777 in Denver with more than 20 years of experience at AT&T, Lucent Technologies and Avaya. “Sometimes they don’t have access because they live in a rural area where broadband is just not available. Even in urban areas like Denver, all areas aren’t served equally. Service is much better in wealthier areas, not just in homes but cell service too. Hot spots have helped some families get by, but they are not a sustainable solution.”

CWA is a member of the Coloradans for Better Internet Coalition, which also includes Coloradans for the Common Good, Colorado Education Association, AARP, the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, Colorado Children’s Campaign, and others. Last month, the group successfully advocated to restore telecommunications service oversight as part of the reauthorization of Colorado’s Office of Consumer Council.

The coalition is also supporting legislation that would provide for greater internet equity and access for all Coloradans, while pushing for bolder action. Senate Bill 21-60 will provide subsidies to low income and underserved families so they can actually afford to connect to this vital service. House Bill 21-1109 will provide for better mapping from broadband providers to obtain a clearer picture of the gaps in internet access in the state of Colorado.

In California, CWA has endorsed Assembly Bill 1100, which establishes targeted state oversight of how communications providers deal with power outages and disasters and how they rebuild their networks following damage from disasters.

“Just like the pandemic has shown everyone how telecom companies have neglected rural and low income customers, California’s wildfires have shown how the companies have cut corners leaving communications networks vulnerable when they are most needed - when disaster strikes,” said Stan Santos, a member of CWA Local 9408 in Fresno and legislative chair of CWA’s Coastal Valley Council, with 20-years’ experience as an AT&T splicing technician. “Any field technician can tell you that this back-up is not always available nor reliable. Measures deployed after the fact following a disaster, or temporary fixes, are not good enough. For example, technicians physically connecting to cabinets to provide generator backup, or blimps, drones and mobile towers on trucks provide only limited, temporary coverage, not a replacement for real back-up power and connectivity.”

CWA is working closely with The Utility Reform Network (TURN) in California, which has also endorsed AB1100.

“Reliable telecom and broadband services are essential for public safety and for everyone to fully participate in society. The large telecom companies have refused to invest in high quality, reliable 21st century networks for rural areas and disadvantaged communities. We saw the failure of communications networks when we needed them most during the California wildfires,” TURN Director of Telecommunications Policy Regina Costa said. “AB 1100 will help the California Legislature and CPUC hold the carriers accountable by requiring them to report the technology used to replace telecom network facilities that have been damaged. The practice of short-changing communities that are deemed unprofitable won't be able to fly under the radar.”

In New York, CWA is spearheading the effort to pass Senate Bill 5117, the New York Broadband Resiliency, Public Safety and Quality Act. The bill would authorize the New York Public Service Commission to exercise oversight, promulgate rules and regulations, and conduct evaluations regarding the resiliency, public safety, and quality of broadband and VoIP service.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to rely on internet access more than ever before, from ordering groceries to attending school, work, and doctors appointments online,” said Senator Sean Ryan from New York’s 60th District who is lead sponsor of S.5117. “We need to ensure all New Yorkers have high-quality, affordable access to broadband. We are happy to report that the inclusion of the Comprehensive Broadband Connectivity Act in the NY state budget is a step in the right direction. This will allow us to collect data on the quality and cost of broadband service across the state to identify where broadband disparities are and why they exist.”

“The next step is ensuring that the public service commission exercises full oversight of broadband to ensure network resiliency, public safety and consumer protection. That is why I am proud to be the lead sponsor of this legislation that will further help New York State to eliminate the digital divide,” added Senator Ryan.

A recording of today’s press briefing is available upon request.

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