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Pushes to Privatize USPS Threaten the Oldest Universal Communications Network and Efficiency of Mail-in Ballots

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Photo of USPS mail being sorted by Ericka Woolever used with permission

August 3, 2020 — The economic fallout resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically worsened the financial condition of the United States Postal Service, necessitating financial relief if it is to continue operating through fiscal year 2020.

Analysts predict that the agency will run out of money by spring.

As the Trump administration is in the midst of fierce negotiations over what should be included in an upcoming stimulus package, a call for federal aid backing USPS has amassed nationwide attention and support.

The bipartisan Postal Service Board of Governors has asked Congress to provide USPS with $25 billion in emergency aid to offset coronavirus-related losses. This proposal was included in the House Democrats’ HEROES Act.

“The HEROES Act includes $25 billion for USPS for revenue losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, $15 million for oversight of this funding and additional protections for USPS workers,” said Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va. The act gives priority to the purchase of personal protective equipment for USPS employees, she added.

Yet the GOP proposed coronavirus relief bill, known as the HEALS Act, overlooks calls for federal funding to support USPS.

On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., accused Republicans who are opposed to the funding of wanting to “diminish the capacity of the Postal System to work in a timely fashion.”

“The money that USPS needs for lost revenue and expenses is COVID-19 related,” said Judy Beard, legislative and political director for the American Postal Workers Union, in a recent Institute for Policy Studies webinar.

Beard noted that other companies “have gotten billions, while the postal service has gotten zero dollars” in federal relief.

Former Postmaster General Megan Brennan projected USPS will lose $13 billion in revenue due to the pandemic and subsequent economic hardship, which has resulted in fewer people and businesses sending mail this year.

Many believe more must be done in order to preserve USPS, and a recent poll revealed overwhelming bipartisan support of federal assistance for USPS, with 90 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Democrats approving.

Potential for USPS privatization

However, many Republican members of Congress, as well as the Trump Administration, have continued to push for privatization of the service.

“Privatization could increase prices and would jeopardize the level of service for rural Virginians,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in a letter to Broadband Breakfast. “It would also ignore proposed reforms that would address the Postal Service’s financial challenges.”

Many rural Americans, especially small business owners, depend on USPS for competitive shipping rates.

According to panelists at the Institute for Policy Studies webinar, 70 million Americans live in areas where private carriers charge extra for package delivery. A privatized USPS could cherry-pick which homes get reliable and affordable service, leaving others behind, panelists warned?

“Why do people push for privatization?” Beard questioned. “Profit is the only reason.”

“Privatization is about making millionaires and billionaires even richer,” she continued, adding that the wealthiest one percent of Americans “forget about the public.”

The USPS was the first essential, universal communications network in the United States.

From the delivery of medications and household goods to stimulus checks, absentee ballots and census forms, the USPS continues to be an essential part of Americans’ everyday lives.

New postmaster, new policies

Louis DeJoy, a Trump campaign megadonor, was appointed Postmaster General by four Republicans and two Democrats serving on the USPS Board of Governors on June 15.

DeJoy wasted no time introducing new operational changes, including prohibiting overtime pay, shutting down sorting machines early and requiring letter carriers to leave mail behind when necessary to avoid extra trips or late delivery on routes.

While these decisions cut extra costs in overtime hours, transportation and more, they also promised to delay postal deliveries.

Traditionally, postal workers are trained not to leave letters behind, making multiple delivery trips throughout the day to ensure mail is delivered on time.

The new policies have resulted in a two-day shipping delay in centers across the country.

According to multiple postal workers and union leaders, letter carriers are manually sorting more mail, adding to delivery time. Meanwhile, bins of mail ready for delivery are sitting in post offices because of route changes.

Without the ability to work overtime, workers say the logjam is worsening, with no end in sight.

“You’d think that DeJoy would be pushing for the aid the post office needs,” said Beard, arguing that instead, the new Postmaster “has done things that are disturbing.”

DeJoy cut a deal with the Treasury Secretary to secure a $10 billion loan for USPS, instead of calling for the direct aid many believe USPS needs.

On March 27, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which included a compromise that allowed USPS to borrow up to $10 billion from the Treasury if the USPS determines that, due to the COVID-19 emergency, it will not be able to fund operating expenses without borrowing money.

But accepting this aid would only work to put USPS further in debt.

“The agency said they were aimed at cutting costs,” said Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies. The federal government is pushing USPS “to the brink of bankruptcy at a time when we need them more than ever.”

Concerns over mail in ballots and voter suppression

As states look to dramatically expand the use of mail-in ballots this fall, postal workers across the country are worried that DeJoy’s enforced operational changes could lead to chaos in November.

“Money to assist with vote-by-mail is desperately needed,” Beard said, adding that workers want to be safe and alert when carrying election materials.

Vote-by-mail boosts voting participation rates. When the service was introduced in the state of Maryland, voter participation immediately doubled.

Mail-in ballots are often utilized by low income individuals, who may not be able to make it to a polling center on election day due to conflicting work schedules.

“Preventing mail-in ballots disproportionately impacts low income people,” said Scott Klinger, senior equitable development strategist at Jobs with Justice.

In the upcoming election, it is predicted that 60 percent of votes cast will be via mail-in ballots, due to safety concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet in the past few weeks, President Donald Trump has continuously attacked the legitimacy of mail-in ballots via Twitter and spread unsubstantiated claims that the Postal Service cannot manage or be trusted to deliver voting materials.

Critics have claimed that Trump’s main grievance with the vote-by-mail system may be that it will hurt him politically, particularly in swing states.

Trump claimed via Twitter that vote-by-mail will make it impossible for Republicans to win in certain states.

“In an illegal late night coup, Nevada’s clubhouse Governor made it impossible for Republicans to win the state,” he tweeted. “Post Office could never handle the Traffic of Mail-In Votes without preparation. Using Covid to steal the state. See you in Court!”

Many have accused the manufactured USPS slowdown as being an act of voter suppression.

“We have an underfunded state and local election system and a deliberate slowdown in the Postal Service,” said Wendy Fields, the executive director of the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of voting and civil rights groups.

Fields argued the President was “deliberately orchestrating suppression and using the post office as a tool to do it.”

Panelists further voiced fears of what privatization would mean for the future of elections, arguing it would inherently undermine their legitimacy.

“I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable handing my ballot over to a private corporation,” Anderson said.

Hazard pay and the pandemic’s effect on workers

“Lack of funding and recent changes have been devastating to workers,” Beard said, noting that USPS does not have the option of laying off workers, as they often do not have enough.

The coronavirus has led to worsened staff shortages. According to Beard, 2,000 to 3,000 members have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and at least 25,000 have had to quarantine, while 15-20 percent of rural letter carriers have been unable to work due to illness or family care.

Beard depicted the fear frontline workers are continually experiencing as they are forced to wonder if they have been infected by the virus while working.

As USPS faces staffing shortages, new operational policies and higher rates of mail-in ballots, workers have only expressed increasing anxiety.

“I’m a little frightened,” said a postal employee in Pennsylvania. “By the time political season rolls around, I shudder to think what it’s going to look like.”

Beard maintained that employees need to be paid competitively in order to preserve an energized workforce, able to tackle demanding shifts.

If passed, the HEROES Act would provide hazard pay and protective equipment to USPS workers.

“Employees aren’t getting overtime because they want to pad their paycheck — they’re demanded to work overtime [due to the volume of work],” Beard said.

Suggestions for the future

Going forward, panelists argued that it is crucial that the federal government support innovations that will make USPS an even greater public asset for generations to come.

Klinger recommended that the government start by investing in funding for bigger vehicles.

“USPS vehicles are old and small,” he said. “New vehicles are already designed and ready to go — USPS just needs funding to buy them.”

“Many U.S. auto workers are out of work right now,” he continued. “Why not put them back to work building bigger vehicles for USPS?”

Klinger believed that USPS could do even more in terms of being a public asset.

He detailed his vision of future service, in which USPS would play a role in countering food insecurity, facilitating education and communication and closing the digital divide.

Globally, postal services play a wide variety of roles, he pointed out.

“Japan’s postal service has digital technology representatives that visit people’s homes to teach elderly populations digital skills,” Klinger said. “France’s postal service developed the watch-over-my-parents program, in which a representative checks on people’s elderly family members and provides a report on how they’re doing.”

USPS buildings could be an instrumental tool in closing the digital divide, Klinger said, if their fast and reliable internet service was used to facilitate hot spot connections and more.

Klinger said he came to understand what government was through the post office.

“It is not a service,” he said. “it is essential.”

The USPS should remain an independent establishment of the federal government, Klinger concluded, saying that America is “not a democracy without a postal service.”

Rural

FCC Announces $163 Million in Second Round of Approved RDOF Funding

The agency is reevaluating winning bids after asking providers to ensure census blocks aren’t already served.

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Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, October 7, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission announced Thursday another approved round of funding from the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

The $163 million in approved money will go to 42 providers who will drive fiber to the home for gigabit services covering 65,000 locations in 21 states over the next ten years, the FCC said Thursday.

“More help is on the way to households without broadband,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a press release Thursday. “This is an important program for getting more Americans connected to high-speed internet, and we are continuing careful oversight of this process to ensure that providers meet their obligations to deploy in areas that need it.”

The FCC in July asked that providers conduct an assessment in areas for which they won money from the fund in December, because complaints emerged that the approved areas were already served with adequate connectivity.

The commission said 85 bidders chose not to pursue their bids in 5,089 census blocks because those areas were either served or could be wasted. Some attributed their enlightenment to updated FCC maps based on Form 477 data, an often criticized form of data collection that is reliant on service provider data.

The last round of approved money was last month, when the FCC approved a further 13 bidders.

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Rural

Varying Technologies Needed to Make Widespread Public Library Wi-Fi a Reality

From direct fiber connections to low-earth orbit satellites, libraries can provide public Wi-Fi through varying means.

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Don Means from the Gigabit Libraries Network.

WASHINGTON, October 4, 2021 – The director of the Libraries Whitespace Project said libraries across the country will need varying ways to get connected and provide access to public Wi-Fi.

That means that while the “cheapest, most equitable, most economical way to connect every community with next generation broadband is to run fiber to all of the 17,000 libraries,” Don Means said Friday, other solutions will need to be considered where geography doesn’t allow for a direct fiber connection.

“Every community is a unique combination of density, topology, socioeconomics, existing infrastructure and also available spectrum and then whatever the local policy preferences are,” said Means, who was hosted by the Gigabit Libraries Network hosted as part of Libraries in Response series on Friday.

There is no one size fits all solution to connectivity, Means said. But vendors, he said, are often concerned with selling a single solution for the simple reason that it’s more efficient and profitable to do so.

A technology still in its infancy is low-earth orbit satellites for broadband, which hover closer to earth than traditional satellites and thus theoretically provide better connectivity than those flying higher above the earth’s surface. The first library in the world connected through LEO satellites is a tribal library located in northern New Mexico, Means said, noting that such technologies could help fill the connectivity gap.

SpaceX’s Starlink is racing to make its broadband constellation of LEOs a staple of rural and urban connectivity, as it has been beta testing its technology for months now.

Means added that some free Wi-Fi hotspots have served to cover entire communities.

“We talk about rural in terms of density, and we use the numbers of countywide density, people per square mile across the county, which is really low,” he said.

“But when you look at where people really live, most rural people live close together in small communities. It might be a mile or two across… which means that these few hotspots across town could cover the whole town.”

He used the example of the town of Plymouth, Nebraska, which set up a handful of these Wi-Fi access stations for $17,000 and gave the entire rural community access to the internet.

The GLN began the series in response to the pandemic, which made clear that broadband, connectivity, and the internet are fundamental to the nation’s wellbeing.

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Rural

Christopher Ali’s New Book Dissects Failures of Rural Broadband Policy and Leadership

“Farm Fresh Broadband” explains the world of broadband policy and provides solutions to bridge the digital divide.

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WASHINGTON, September 24, 2021—In his most recent book, University of Virginia Professor Christopher Ali argues that the ongoing battle for improved connectivity is not only far from over, but also critically flawed.

“Farm Fresh Broadband” proposes a new approach to national rural broadband policy to narrow the rural-urban digital divide. In Ali’s view, the lack of coordinated, federal leadership and a failure to recognize the roles that local communities and municipalities need to play in the deployment of broadband has contributed to a lack of competition between carriers, and ultimately, higher costs to consumers.

Just two days after it was released, Ali sat down for a video interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark to discuss his story – and Ali’s recommendations that resulted from his journey.

Ali raises the question about How the $6 billion in federal funds allocated to broadband is spent annually? Based on his findings, he makes policy recommendations to democratize rural broadband policy architecture and re-model it after the historic efforts to bring telephony services and electricity to Americans across the country.

In particular, Ali discusses how, in one chapter of his book, he raises the provocative question about whether “Good Is the Enemy of Great: The Four Failures of Rural Broadband Policy.” In his telling, less money, lower speed, and poor-quality broadband mapping have all contributed to an approach that, in seeking “good enough,” federal policy has failed Rural America.

Ali, an associate professor at UVA’s Department of Media Studies and a Knight News Innovation Fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, is also the chair of the Communication Law and Policy Division of the International Communications Association and the author of two books on localism in media, “Media Localism: The Policies of Place” (University of Illinois Press, 2017) and “Local News in a Digital World” (Tow Center for Digital Journalism, 2017)

“Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity” available at the MIT Press.

See Professor Ali’s recent Expert Opinion for Broadband Breakfast, “Christopher Ali: Is Broadband Like Getting Bran Flakes to the Home?

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