Build Broadband Better and End the Digital Divide
The COVID-19 Pandemic has demonstrated the critical nature of high speed and affordable broadband for all Americans to work, learn, shop and succeed in the world today. The Pandemic has exposed a deep rural and urban digital divide and has made it clear that millions of Americans lack access to affordable and reliable high speed internet services. We have all seen the photos and videos of school children being forced to sit in a fast food parking lot simply to attend classes and do their homework.
In the U.S. today 28 million households, or 23 percent of all households, lack a home broadband connection because they either cannot access quality broadband or cannot afford broadband. Affordability of internet access remains a major hurdle with the U.S. being the second most expensive country for home broadband amongst the 38 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic and Co-operation and Development (OECD).
As with most forms of inequity in this country, the digital divide is also a racial equity issue. Those left behind by this digital divide are primarily lower-income, working class and people of color. Only 67 percent of Hispanic households and 71 percent of African American households have a subscription to home broadband services, compared to 80 percent of white households, according to 2019 data from Pew Research. And at a time when 100 percent of U.S. households of all income levels need access to internet broadband services, the same data showed that while 92 percent of high-income households earning over $75,000 annually have home broadband, just 57 percent of households earning below $30,000 a year have a home broadband subscription and 80 percent of those making between $30,000 and $75,000 a year have a home broadband subscription.
Business decisions by internet service providers have exacerbated the racial and income digital divide. They have prioritized upgrading their networks to fiber in wealthy areas where they are more likely to convince consumers to sign up for expensive services that boost their profits.
Years of deregulation of the industry at the federal and state levels have left consumers and policymakers with few tools to address the digital divide and to hold telecom companies accountable for network outages, unreliable service, and poorly maintained facilities. The industry has argued for deregulation by claiming that competition in the marketplace will drive buildout of broadband networks and achieve universal service. But we know that after decades of these promises that deregulation has not delivered for the U.S. public.
For many years, CWA has advocated for policies to address the digital divide and incentivize broadband buildout focusing on bringing fiber to as many U.S. households as possible. Our Speed Matters campaign in the 2000’s was prescient in advocating for policies that we viewed as necessary for the U.S. to ensure affordable, high speed, quality broadband access for all. We know that if many of our policies had been adopted then, that our country would be in a better position today.
Fortunately, the Biden Administration and Congressional Democrats have prioritized addressing the digital divide. Billions were provided to states through the American Recovery Act which can be used for projects to expand broadband deployment. The Emergency Broadband Benefit was created by Congress to help low income households afford broadband services. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) approved by the U.S. Senate and pending action in the House of Representatives would extend this benefit for five years.
The IIJA overall provides $65 billion in federal funds to address the digital divide in this country. Funds are devoted for broadband network buildout, digital equity and affordability measures. A significant amount -- $42.5 billion -- is dedicated for broadband deployment, which would be given in block grants to the states to distribute to individual broadband providers who commit to building in unserved and underserved areas.
CWA members in telecom are the most highly-trained and experienced workforce in the industry, with deep knowledge of deployment, maintenance, and customer support. The critical task of building next generation fiber optic broadband networks should be carried out by skilled, union technicians so the work is done right the first time. Too often, we have seen our employers outsource deployment to lowest cost subcontractors who rush through the jobs, cutting corners on quality and safety. We have seen cable and new entrants rely on construction crews that lack adequate training and job security. States and the federal government have a critical role to play in requiring accountability from broadband providers for their working conditions -- if a recipient of public funds is not union today, they must be required to respect workers’ right to organize, and CWA must be there to support those workers to organize and gain a voice at work.
Because of the advocacy work of CWA, Congress included language in the IIJA requiring that preference be given to companies with a demonstrated record of compliance with labor laws and a commitment to comply with labor laws in the future. This is historic legislative language that for the first time attaches high road employer labor standards as a priority for federal broadband funding. Once the legislation is approved by Congress and signed by President Biden, the Department of Commerce will begin work on the final labor standards and disclosures that states must require of companies who receive these funds. CWA will need to continue to engage at the federal and state levels to ensure that our priorities for building broadband better and ending the digital divide are addressed.
Resolved: CWA will continue to advocate for policies and requirements at the federal, state, and local levels for public funding used for broadband infrastructure that: prioritizes the buildout of fiber optic broadband over other, inferior technologies, gives preference to high road employers who directly employ their workforce and respect workers’ rights to bargain and organize, provides an active role for state and federal regulators to ensure strong accountability and oversight of the projects, and works to address affordability for all Americans.
Resolved: CWA will urge the Biden Administration to develop strong and enforceable rules for the broadband funding provided under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that incentivize as much as possible the use of the funds by highly skilled incumbent workforces, disincentivizes companies that follow a low-road employer model using a contractor workforce, and requires recipients of funding to respect workers’ rights to bargain and organize.
Resolved: CWA will focus federal and state level legislative and regulatory efforts to reverse the decades of deregulation of the telecommunications industry and to regulate the communications network of the 21st century to ensure that networks are resilient and the voices of workers and consumers are heard.
Resolved: CWA’s political program should include efforts to elect and appoint members of Public Utility Commissions (PUCs) and other state oversight bodies that support our policy goals of greater accountability for broadband providers.