Washington, D.C. -- Today, at the U.S. House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology (Committee on Energy and Commerce) Connecting America: Broadband Solutions to Pandemic Problems hearing, Chris Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), highlighted the failure of telecom companies to upgrade their networks and called on Congress to take action to expand broadband access.
“We are living in an America where if you have ten thousand dollars to spend on an ad in the Wall Street Journal, you can get quality internet access at home,” Shelton said, referring to 90-year-old Aaron Epstein’s successful effort to get AT&T to install high speed fiber internet service at his home in North Hollywood, Calif. “But if you’re a single mom struggling to pay the bills, your children have to sit in a McDonald’s parking lot using the free wifi to do their homework.”
In his written testimony, Shelton said that decades of deregulation have led to a deterioration of the telecommunications network and under-investment in broadband buildout. He cited a report published last year by CWA and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. The report revealed that AT&T, once the leader in universal service, has made fiber-to-the-home available for fewer than one-third of the households in its 21-state network.
Shelton called for an approach to broadband policy that “that accounts for the shortcomings of the recent decades of industry-driven deregulation and charts a new path with accountability and oversight as watchwords, and with frontline telecom workers as stakeholders whose jobs and voices matter, since they do the hard work of connecting all Americans.”
He applauded Congressional efforts such as the Emergency Broadband Benefit included in the pandemic relief bill and E-rate funding for remote learning in the forthcoming COVID-19 budget reconciliation measure. He urged Congress to pass an infrastructure bill that will expand broadband access and create and protect good jobs, as President Biden has laid out in his plan to build back better.
Shelton recommended $80 billion in funding for broadband deployment and that Congress establish standards to create and protect good jobs, including making sure that workers are able to exercise their collective bargaining rights free from employer coercion and intimidation and prohibiting the outsourcing of work to contractors in order to circumvent a collective bargaining agreement. These protections are essential because of the growing trend of major broadband companies contracting and subcontracting work, which fragments and disempowers their workforce. In the broadband sector, most construction contractors are non-union and undercut the wages, benefits and quality of work that union members fought for and won over decades. They also present risks to public safety and quality of service, which CWA has documented in a recent report.
Shelton also called for Congress to strengthen the Lifeline program and protect the millions of low-income consumers who rely on it by modernizing Lifeline’s funding mechanism to ensure the sustainability of the program.
According to the Federal Communication Commission’s most recent Internet Access Services report, 44 million households do not have a broadband connection that meets the FCC speed benchmark. Broadband access is stratified by race and income, and the digital divide remains deep, both because of inadequate access and because broadband service is unaffordable for many.
CWA has long been a strong advocate for universal broadband. In 2006, the union launched the Speed Matters campaign, calling for better broadband maps at the FCC, faster broadband speeds, a strong Lifeline subsidy program to connect low-income households, and robust public investment to spur broadband deployment. While the Speed Matters coalition won some victories, such as the increase in the broadband speed benchmark in 2015 and the modernization of the Lifeline program to include broadband service, the promise of universal broadband has been stymied by industry intransigence and legislative inaction.
“CWA members who build, maintain, and service our telecom networks know better than anyone how broadband policy can help address the struggles our nation faces. We are grateful that the Biden Administration and Congressional Democrats have begun to take the necessary steps to address these glaring digital inequities that the pandemic has exposed,” Shelton said.
An archive video of the hearing is available at https://youtu.be/F1bexiwkjHs?t=3131.