July 20, 2021—A labor union association is accusing Lumen Technologies of underinvesting in broadband infrastructure and discriminating against lower-income households while collecting public money, but the company is disputing the premise of the claims.
The Communications Workers of America’s allegations are compiled in a report released last month in cooperation with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance that analyzes multiple sources, including the Federal Communications Commission’s June 2020 form 477 data in over 30 states where Lumen operates its network.
Among the findings of the report is the allegation that 42 percent of households with access to Lumen’s fiber are in census blocks with median incomes of above $75,000, while only seven percent are in blocks with median incomes of below $35,000.
In counties with higher populations of Native Americans – more than 25 percent of households – only about 5.2 percent have access to fiber-to-the-home service and 50 percent have DSL access, the report said.
The CWA also claims that 39 percent of Lumen’s footprint does not meet the FCC’s definition of broadband of 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload.
All the while, Lumen has been receiving $506 million annually from 2015 to 2021 from the FCC’s Connect America Fund to get broadband to underserved areas, a fact that makes the allegations more egregious, the report said.
The company also received $262 million over ten years in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund reverse auction to build fiber-to-the-home in underserved areas.
What’s more, since 2017, the company has cut more than 4,500 CWA-represented jobs critical to broadband deployment, according to the report.
“Lumen Technologies is a clear example of what happens when telecom companies aren’t held accountable to their workers and customers,” said CWA District 7 Vice President Brenda Roberts.
But Lumen disputes these claims.
“We’ve made significant investments in our network to bring broadband access to every corner of our service territory where it is economically feasible,” Linda Johnson, senior manager of corporate communications at Lumen, said in a statement to Broadband Breakfast.
“Sparsely populated areas are difficult for any communications provider to serve due to the costs of building and maintaining the network infrastructure,” Johnson said.
Lumen says it is working with policymakers to develop public-private partnerships that encourage broadband investment and high-speed internet to more homes and businesses.
In the report, the CWA calls on Lumen to double the number of households passed by fiber by investing in more fiber deployment within two years; upgrade networks in rural and tribal communities across its footprint with federal dollars; and stop outsourcing publicly funded broadband jobs to non-union contractors.
This is a similar call the union representative made in a recent campaign, called Build Broadband Better, in which it is asking the federal government to include requirements attached to federal funds that the recipients not hire subcontractors.
The CWA also wants the expansion of internet service to schools and other places in low-income areas as a form of investment from Lumen.
Within a six-month timeframe, the CWA expects Lumen to invest in building its fiber networks, given that part of the company is showing an increasing number of subscribers.
“We expect Lumen to work with union members to meet the challenges of building broadband in a constructive dialogue,” said CWA’s research economist Zane Farr.
Other data points the CWA said it used for the report includes CWA records, a study of Lumen’s quarterly earnings reports, the FCC’s internet access services status report, a Pew Research Center report on mobile technology and home broadband in 2021, a Columbia Telecommunications Corporation’s white paper called “Mobile Broadband Service Is Not an Adequate Substitute for Wireline,” a Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis report called “The digital divide in Indian Country,” and the U.S Census Bureau report called “Differences in income growth across U.S Counties.”
The FCC did not respond to a request for comment.
Pole Access Delays Cost Americans Millions a Month, Report Claims
Report recommends policymakers streamline access to poles as ‘most efficient’ means of broadband expansion.
WASHINGTON, December 2, 2021 – Policymakers at the federal and state level must reform pole attachment policies to facilitate faster broadband deployment and unlock millions in economic benefits, according to a Connect the Future report released Thursday.
The report by Edward Lopez, a professor of economics at Western Carolina University, and pole attachment expert Patricia Kravtin concludes that allowing broadband providers to attach their equipment on utility poles “is the most efficient means to expand high-speed broadband access to currently unserved areas of the country.”
The report also estimates that delayed expansion due to hold ups at poles “costs Americans between $491 million and $1.86 billion” every month.
Service providers generally either bury telecommunications cables in the ground, which can be prohibitively expensive in remote areas of the country, or attach equipment over land on utility poles, which are often owned by electricity companies. While the latter is a standard practice, sometimes there are permit delays or disagreement on attaching fees that have created frictions.
Pole attachments will play a significant role for broadband expansion, as federal dollars pour in from sources including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law last month, and as 5G networks require more attachments.
The report determined the economic value of such a policy on a willingness-to-pay metric. That measure calculates how much more households are willing to pay per month for improvements in broadband and multiplies it by the number of locations becoming connected. For example, if 5.22 million locations become connected as a result of the Federal Communications Commission’s $9-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, that would generate a monthly WTP of $579 million. The figure is then annualized in terms of net present value over 25 years at a 5 percent discount rate. The study includes case studies in North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin.
The “new report makes clear that as our country continues to invest public and private dollars into expanding broadband access, policymakers must take immediate action to ensure that these investments are maximized for impact to bring connectivity to rural communities without delay – and this includes reforming outdated and ineffective pole attachment rules,” Zach Cikanek, executive director of Connect the Future, said in a press release.
“Policymakers can do this by guaranteeing a faster, fairer process for utility pole access, replacements, and dispute resolution to speed the construction of broadband infrastructure so we can more quickly achieve 100% connectivity across our country,” he added.
According to Thursday’s report, utility pole owners have exercised “significant market power over pole attachment rates, terms and conditions” and “frequently impose onerous timetables, unfeasible permitting fees, and various pre- and post-construction requirements, including full pole replacements ahead of scheduled replacement, as part of ‘make-ready’ procedures required prior to the actual attachment to the pole.”
There have been a number of lawsuits popping up in courts across the country that have involved large telecoms trying to gain cost efficient and timely access to those poles. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission found Verizon paid “unjust” pole attachment fees to a utility company in Maryland, as it billed the maximum rate possible.
And earlier this year, the FCC alleviated some burdens by ruling that investor-owned utilities cannot charge new attachers for pole replacements if they are not the sole cause for the replacement. This stems from telecom companies having to front the cost for replacing a pole if an assessment shows that adding new equipment would warrant the change.
Governors Discuss Infrastructure Bill Spending at Summit
Leaders addressed strategies and importance of private spending.
ANNAPOLIS, December 2, 2021 – Governors from some states gathered in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss how they would use the billions in funding coming from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The three-day National Governor’s Association Infrastructure Summit, a large part of which was closed off to media, hosted a panel discussion on Tuesday. The panel included Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, Guam Democratic Governor Lourdes Leon Guerrero, Maryland Republican Governor Larry Hogan, and Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Tom Wolf.
Edwards said that once Louisiana had received money from the infrastructure bill – signed into law in mid-November that would provide a minimum of $100 million to the states – the changes to broadband would be drastic. “We will be able to address [access and the digital divide] to a degree that was not be possible before.
“If there is a home or business [in Louisiana] without high-speed internet by 2029, it is because they do not want it,” Edwards said. He explained that because Louisiana identified the shortcomings in its broadband infrastructure and began laying the groundwork to improve it years ago, the state is more well equipped to take advantage of the funding that will come with the IIJA.
In early 2020, Edwards announced his “Broadband for Everyone in Louisiana” plan that outlined coverage priority areas, the guiding principles, and goals for the state’s approach to improved broadband connectivity. The state broadband office, Connect L.A., was formed to help put the plan into action.
As part of the state’s initiative to bridge the digital divide, Edwards’ administration created Louisiana’s Grant Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities program, or GUMBO, to help underserved and unserved areas apply for federal funding for broadband projects.
Need for private investment
Wolf pointed to actions Pennsylvania is taking to ensure that funds are not squandered. “[The IIJA] is not an infinite amount of money and it is not nearly what our engineers say we need,” he said. To get the most out of the funding they receive, Wolf recommended that states create centralized infrastructure banks to only allocate money to approved projects and avoid both literal and figurative “bridges to nowhere.”
“Private investment is also critically important,” Hogan said. Indeed, all the governors sharing the stage encouraged states to explore public-private efforts. Edwards said he was hopeful that the IIJA would not tie states’ hands, preventing states from utilizing such models. “We need an approach that has the flexibility to work for us,” he said. “I hope the rules are not written in a way that requires us to do all of this ourselves [without private investment].”
The purpose of this gathering is to allow governors, their secretaries, and staff to meet, collaborate, and share their experiences to help states partner for regional infrastructure projects, prioritize projects, and learn to obtain the necessary resources from the federal government to complete said projects.
Hogan presented the opening keynote and participated in some of the first day’s events. Bipartisanship was one of the focal points of the summit, and Hogan hammered on it during his keynote.
“A lot of conventional wisdom was that a federal infrastructure bill could not be in a bipartisan way,” he said. Hogan said that the collaborative work governors did on a state and regional level proved this “wisdom” to be false, stating, “the nation’s governors will continue to lead the way.”
Waiting on the federal government
Hogan said that while the money in the IIJA will be “transformational,” there are still a considerable number of unknowns. “We are still waiting for guidance from the federal government,” he said. As it stands now, he said there is no precise timeline for when the funds will be dispensed or if certain monies will have rigid, unknown requirements that could hold up the process. “The devil is in the details,” said Hogan.
“We will find a way to make use of every penny we receive,” he added, but said it was still unclear how much money the state would get or, where it could be used, and when the state would get it.
Hogan said Maryland’s efforts would be concentrated on repairing and modernizing infrastructure, while also devising new ways to streamline the deployment of future projects.
The NGA summit runs through December 2 and covers topics such as broadband, freight transportation, green infrastructure and supply chain issues.
Advocates Call for Universal Service Fund to Include Broadband Revenues
Letter cites Carol Mattey report, which recommends broadening the base.
WASHINGTON, November 29, 2021 – A broad swath of organizations on Monday is calling for policymakers in Washington to reform and stabilize the Universal Service Fund by broadening its funding base to include broadband revenues.
The Universal Service Fund, which supplies the nation’s low-income and rural and remote communities with basic telecommunications services, currently relies on voice service revenues, which has been a dwindling for years. Debate has emerged about how the fund can be stabilized, with some asking for the money to come from a congressional budget item and others asking for it to come from broadband revenues.
The latter is being recommended by over 254 organizations, including public interest groups, anchor institutions, trade associations and broadband service providers, in a Monday call to action letter to policymakers in Washington. The letter cites a September report by Carol Mattey, a former deputy chief of the Federal Communications Commission, which said broadband revenues should be incorporated into the USF base of money to draw upon.
“Unfortunately, this universal service system is in danger of collapse because the mechanism that funds it has not been updated since it was adopted nearly 25 years ago,” the letter said. The USF program is a relic from 1997 and a product of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The letter features organizations including Public Knowledge, the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, Gigabit Libraries Network, California Emerging Technology Fund, and a number of telecoms and telecom associations and anchor institutions from over a dozen states.
The contribution percent – the percent providers must pay of their voice revenues – has reached an all-time high in the second quarter this year, at 33.4 percent in the second quarter this year, and decreased slightly after that. Mattey and the signatories, however, warn that the contribution could soar as high as 40 percent in the coming years, as the fund operates at around $10 billion annually.
Citing the Mattey report, the letter suggests that including broadband revenues into the fund would reduce the USF fee to less than 4 percent, adding it would not stunt broadband adoption or retention, as fees are often passed down to customers.
“Our recommendation would reduce regulatory uncertainty, would better reflect evolving uses of services, would be straightforward to administer, and would be more equitable and nondiscriminatory for residential and business consumers than the current system,” the letter said.
“Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission could make this change under its existing authority without requiring new legislation,” the letter added, as Mattey and Greg Guice, Public Knowledge director of government affairs, said at a conference recently.
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr suggested earlier this year that Big Tech companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook should contribute to the fund because they benefit from broadband services. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called the idea “intriguing,” while FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington also raised the idea at an event in September.
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