CWA "Speed Matters" Report Avoids Key Telecom Issues Facing Working Families
Note: The following article was originally written for Communicate or Die - the labor and technology blog run by Prometheus Labor Communications.
The Communication Workers of America just released their 3rd annual Speed Matters report on broadband upload and download speeds by state across the U.S. Like their last report - that I wrote about in these pages a while back - this year's report makes the rather obvious case that America needs better and faster broadband internet coverage. They indicate that we're only number 28 in the world in average internet connection speed - still a shockingly low number considering that the internet was primarily created by the American military together with American research universities with public money.
In keeping with the earlier reports, the new one ticks off an action program - which has grown from 8 to 9 points this time around. Here they are (capital letters reprinted from the original)
1. ESTABLISH A NATIONAL POLICY GOAL.
2. COLLECT ROBUST AND DETAILED BROADBAND DATA.
3. DEVELOP STATE AND REGIONAL BROADBAND PLANNING
COMMISSIONS OR TASK FORCES AND PUBLIC-PRIVATE
PARTNERSHIPS TO STIMULATE HIGH-SPEED BROADBAND
DEPLOYMENT AND ADOPTION.
4. REFORM UNIVERSAL SERVICE.
5. TAX INCENTIVES FOR FASTER SPEEDS.
6. USE BROADBAND TO ADDRESS OUR NATION’S CHALLENGES.
7. NO CHILD OFFLINE.
8. PRESERVE AN OPEN INTERNET.
9. SAFEGUARD CONSUMERS AND WORKERS.
Now this all sounds fine to the casual reader, but the same problems that I discussed last year still lurk just beneath the surface - plus a big new problem rears its complicated head.
The main issue that I focused on in my earlier blog entry on this subject is that these Speed Matters plans seem to primarily be attempts to get more public money shoveled at giant telecoms like Verizon - who in turn, CWA doubtless hopes, will create more jobs that can be unionized. At least in already-unionized companies like Verizon. This is the same reason why CWA backs the buildout of the FiOS fiber optic data delivery system by Verizon, mainly in wealthy communities where it's billed as an alternative to cable TV ... even though Verizon is trying to end run the taxes on the new service that the cable industry has been forced to pay for 30 years that bankroll publicly-run cable access channels where many union members (and other people from all walks of life) are able to create local TV shows. If Verizon gets out from under such taxes, Comcast and the other remaining cable giants will call it quits too and cable access operations around the country will quickly go under. Which in turn will harm democracy by ending the broadcast of most local government proceedings in addition to denying the next generation the free and cheap media production training that has been so beneficial since the system began.
Sadly, the only way many American unions seem to know how to pitch for job creation is to help convince the government to dump huge amounts of money on the same multi-national corporations that fight ceaselessly to bust unions and harm the public trust in a thousand ways in their endless quest for profits.
Which goes a long way towards explaining why CWA is working with a telecom-dominated coalition called Connected Nation, whose main job seems to be to get public stimulus money to thwart government efforts to get hard numbers on broadband penetration. This last in direct violation of points 2 and 9 of the CWA's Speed Matters plan.
The reasons why a telecom coalition might work busily to keep hard data on broadband use out of the public domain, and use federal stimulus money (mentioned in the CWA report) earmarked for helping get hard broadband numbers to do the exact opposite, are somewhat obscure.
But a coalition of grassroots media reform and good government organizations has been fighting Connected Nation for several months on these very issues, and issued a report called "Privatizing the Public Trust: a Critical Look at Connected Nation" last spring in which they state that the telecom industry front group, "relies on very strict non-disclosure agreements to limit what can be done with the data it collects. In North Carolina, the NDA requires that the maps and web sites used to show broadband coverage 'may not differentiate between general broadband service types (such as DSL, cable, fixed wireless, BPS and others) and may not, at a pinpoint, address level, identify broadband Providers at a given location.' (The agreement also stipulates that any information collected remains the property of AT&T, and can be returned or destroyed at any time.) The NDA attached to this report was used by AT&T to collect information on behalf of the Connect North America organization it sponsors. This clause in the agreement means that the broadband maps produced by Connected Nation or its franchise operations around the country simply show that a company has some service on some street. For consumers or policymakers, there may be no indication of what the technology is, at what speed, or at what price. If the carriers have their way, there never will."
The rationale for this stance is clear - the telecoms want to get lots of federal money to spend as they will. Every house that gets lousy substandard internet service (that wouldn't even be considered high-speed internet in many other countries) can be counted as having been given broadband service. The public, meanwhile, will not be able to look at detailed data of the type that any government agency would normally collect that would indicate all the important information mentioned above - like what kind of internet service people were getting, and what companies they were able to get it from (which in most parts of the country would be a maximum of one telephone company and one cable company). And we will also not be able to use such data to demand that the government take direct action to provide better service by public means. Which is only natural since internet service should absolutely be considered a public utility, and should be provided as a government service wherever possible.
However, since the very same telecoms have cooked the legislative system at all levels to stop all efforts at public broadband provision there are few public alternatives to bad corporate broadband even in the most progressive cities and towns in the U.S.
But while Connected Nation gets some oblique mentions in Speed Matters, it is never stated forthrightly that CWA is working with an industry coalition at cross-purposes with the public right-to-know on these matters, and in contravention of its own stated goals. And all this in addition to the existing problematic CWA stances I covered last year like calling for the vague "open internet" instead of net neutrality - plus pushing the idea that shoving billions more dollars at telecoms is somehow a pro-union job strategy.
Nowhere in Speed Matters do we see the following list of the Connected Nation Board of Directors - which I repost below from Privatizing the Public Trust - that shows who the president of CWA is working with on these issues
What we see instead is data showing in broad strokes that Americans have bad internet service - which all players in the broadband debates and most Americans are very well aware of.
What we don't see in Speed Matters is any transparent discussion of the telecom industry's role in ensuring that most Americans - except the wealthiest ones - have lousy (and in some areas no) broadband service 13 years after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 made it a priority to do so.
So this year, rather than beat around the bush, I'd like to say straight out that I think union tech folks should contact CWA and ask they why they are pursuing what amounts to an anti-worker strategy on the macro level in order to get a few thousand more union jobs in one sector on the micro level. Or better yet, maybe CWA tech strategists can chime in here and give us their own perspective on this - which will allow us to have a rare open dialogue on such matters in broader labor movement (and community media) circles.
For myself, I still hope that CWA will change course on telecom issues, and join together with their natural allies in organizations like Common Cause, Reclaim the Media and the other authors of the Privatizing the Public Trust report. Because if CWA - an otherwise progressive union - turns its back on the standard bearers of progressive pro-working families policy in its own industry, I fear for future of democratic communications in the U.S. And in some sense for the future of American unions in general. [Although I'm always worried about that. Hence my going to the trouble of writing about unions and technology.]
Comments from the general public, as always, are welcome.