AT&T/Verizon workers’ union urges states to regulate ISPs as utilities

A US map with lines representing broadband networks.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) union is lobbying state governments to regulate Internet service providers as utilities.

The CWA, which represents more than 150,000 workers at AT&T and over 30,000 at Verizon, announced on Monday a “multi-state effort to pass state legislation that would establish public utility commission oversight of broadband in public safety, network resiliency and consumer protection.”

“Legislation has already been introduced in California, Colorado and New York, and CWA is in active conversations with policymakers in state houses across the country about its model bill, the Broadband Resiliency, Public Safety and Quality Act,” the union said. In addition to broadband regulation, the model bill calls for regulation of the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) home phone services offered by cable companies and other ISPs, which have replaced the old copper-wire landlines for many consumers.

The Federal Communications Commission is likely to restore Title II common-carrier regulation of broadband providers and net neutrality rules after Democrats gain an FCC majority. But state-level regulation similar to what’s historically been applied to telephone service and other utilities could provide additional protection for broadband consumers.

“States have always had a vital role to play in overseeing our communications networks and ensuring that those networks are operated in the public interest—it’s codified in the Communications Act of 1934,” Gigi Sohn, a consumer advocate who served as counselor to then-Chairman Tom Wheeler in the Obama-era FCC, said in the CWA press release. “Unfortunately, many states abdicated that responsibility in the early part of the millennium at the behest of incumbent broadband providers. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear that broadband is essential infrastructure, it’s time for states to take back that authority. I wholeheartedly support CWA’s initiative to convince states to reassert their authority over broadband and Voice over IP services.”

States should be “able to protect consumers, ensure that networks can withstand ever-increasing natural disasters and other threats to public safety, and collect data about broadband pricing, deployment, adoption and network resiliency,” Sohn said.

Political winds shift

While cable and telecom lobby groups will vigorously oppose any new regulation of broadband services, the CWA and Sohn see a window of opportunity as the pandemic has put a spotlight on the abusive customer-service practices of major ISPs, lack of broadband competition in large parts of the US, high prices, and telcos’ failure to maintain slow and outage-prone networks.

President Joe Biden has already vowed to lower broadband prices, end hidden fees by requiring Internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge, and expand municipal networks that could fill gaps in areas neglected by private providers. Nearly 20 states have restricted municipal broadband with laws supported by private ISPs and Republicans, but that, too, is changing, with some states taking those laws off the books and Biden announcing a goal of “lifting barriers that prevent municipally owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers.”

CWA President Chris Shelton said that “the past three decades of industry-driven deregulation have failed us,” leaving the US “with deteriorating telephone networks and a failure to deliver next-generation services to rural and low-income areas.”

“Telecom-industry executives said deregulation was necessary for competition and that competition would magically fix everything. It hasn’t, and the public needs watchdogs we can work with to ensure this essential service is there for our communities today and into the future,” said Brenda Roberts, VP of the CWA district that covers the Mountain West, Pacific Northwest, and Upper Midwest regions. “Without regulation, the goal of universal broadband service is just a nice dream.”

The CWA held an event discussing its push for state regulation, with video available here.

Model bill details

The CWA provided a one-page fact sheet on its model bill, saying that “industry-driven deregulation of POTS/copper networks and non-regulation of broadband networks have left residents with no watchdogs over essential communication services.” Among other problems, ISPs tend to “upgrade infrastructure where it is most profitable,” leaving lower-income areas without modern service, the fact sheet said.

The model bill would do the following in states that enact it as proposed by the CWA:

  1. Undo any blanket prohibition on state oversight for broadband/VoIP.
  2. Explicitly authorize PUC [the state public utility commission] to exercise oversight over broadband/VoIP
  3. Direct PUC to exercise authority over broadband/VoIP in specific areas [of] resiliency, public safety, data collection/transparency, and consumer protection.
  4. Authorize PUC to conduct third-party audits of facilities and infrastructure.
  5. Direct PUC to report back to the Legislature annually.

The model bill begins with an intro that says, “[t]he legislature hereby finds and declares that access to high-speed broadband is a necessity and essential to participation in the economy,” and that “VoIP has replaced traditional voice telephone service for a large segment of the population… State regulators require unambiguous authority and a clear mandate to establish and enforce appropriate oversight and regulation of broadband and VoIP in order to meet the state’s goals of universal, high-quality and affordable access.”

The model bill doesn’t specifically call for price regulation, but it says that state commissions shall issue “rules and regulations necessary to implement effective oversight of broadband and VoIP service… including but not limited to” the specific areas of regulation detailed in the bill. The bill instructs the state public utility commission to “require Internet service providers to report data on the deployment/availability, pricing and adoption of VoIP and broadband service,” and “exercis[e] oversight of Internet service providers’ emergency preparedness and plans for post-emergency network restoration, including establishing minimum power back-up requirements and requiring all Internet service providers to maintain networks sufficiently to ensure reliable and safe communications services.”

The state commission would also be empowered to conduct evaluations and audits of facilities and infrastructure “in regards to areas of public safety, resiliency, broadband and anything else the commission deems relevant to achieving goals of resiliency, quality and public safety in broadband service as well as the overall goals of universal access and affordability of broadband service.”

Legislation based on the model bill has been introduced in New York. Separately, the CWA is supporting a bill in California to require collection of information from telecom providers about their efforts to repair or replace communications infrastructure damaged in emergencies or disasters. The CWA is also supporting Colorado bills to provide subsidies to low-income residents and improve broadband-availability mapping to identify “critically unserved areas” where the state should fund deployment.