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Dear Telecom Unions: Time to Fight for the Public Switched Network Infrastructure & Technology (PSNIT) -- The State-based Utility Wires

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Since I started writing at Huffington Post, I've been getting letters from the front -- CWA and IBEW communications union members from around the country who not only care about their jobs -- but about the networks they helped to build.

They are frustrated with management not only because of dramatic staff cuts but because of a serious lack of basic maintenance and equipment where they can't properly maintain the wires. They are also not happy because the companies are not upgrading the basic U.S. telecom infrastructure -- the same infrastructure that supports not only phone calls but broadband, internet, cable and -- oh yes, wireless services -- as every cell tower is attached to a wire.

And while there are those who think everyone is going wireless -- go home, take your shoes off and start the evening by watching a video or TV on your 4-inch-by-3-inch wireless screen all night until your eyes give out or your 'bandwidth caps' kick in.

But now it is getting serious as AT&T, Verizon and Centurylink came up with a plan to remove all regulations and to close down the wires -- claiming it's about innovation and IP-enabled (Internet Protocol) services when it's really about removing every basic safeguard -- such as providing phone or data services to customers over the existing wires -- or not having obligations to upgrade them to fiber optics -- even though customers paid for these upgrades.

And the attack on the wires is happening across the U.S. as well as on the federal level as there is an AT&T petition to 'transition' -- read shut down -- the Public Switched Telephone Networks (PSTN). I'll get back to this in a second.

Truth is, what is really going on is the creation of new "digital dead zones" where the companies are planning on abandoning about 50 percent of all customers who use the state-based utility wires -- the PSNIT -- the Public Switched Network Infrastructure & Technology (a term that includes all wires, network switches, technology and includes the PSTN).

In the case of Verizon, anything that is not FiOS can be "abandoned." For AT&T, anything that is not U-Verse can be abandoned -- even though U-Verse is based on the old copper, already existing wires.

The future of the unions is tied to these wires -- as they abandon areas and stop upgrading the wires -- they are abandoning the staff required to do the upgrades or even maintain the plant.

We've gotten plenty of letters of horror stories from those doing the installs or the repairs because there isn't enough staff to do the work or even deal with customer problems -- and in fact stories now abound of the customer service reps being instructed once the line breaks to say, go to wireless or cable -- or just go away.

Through attrition and a death by 1000 cuts, then, the networks and the unions are now under siege.

How bad does it get? Local 827 in New Jersey pointed out that the return of service after the Hurricane Sandy was hampered because there has been multiple layoffs, with the most recent last week.

In a petition to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, (BPU), IBEW 827 President Bill Huber writes:

The service failures of Verizon in maintaining telephone service have resulted in inadequate restoration of telephone service in a timely fashion which can be ascribed in large measure to its failure to maintain a sufficient number of employees... who were conversant with technology and facilities in New Jersey.

But this is not simply New Jersey. The New York State Attorney General filed a petition with the State's Department of Public Service in April 2012, outlining that the State's deregulations harmed the quality of service.

The Commission's deregulatory decision relieving Verizon of providing adequate service to most of its customers was deeply flawed and has resulted in seriously diminished service quality for Verizon customers. Commission assumptions made about the effect of market competition ignored the fact that, at best, New York's telephone service market is a duopoly, and contrary to theoretical expectations of market controls, the presence of a single competitor has not in fact prevented Verizon from allowing customer service to continue to degrade ... The Commission allowed the company to provide below standard service to 92% of its customers with impunity.

But it's a lot worse. In the state of New Jersey, Verizon committed to have 100 percent of the state upgraded to a fiber optic service capable of 45 Mbps in both directions. In fact, the company collected over $13 billion for these upgrades. At a hearing in April 2012 by the NJ BPU in a small town of Stow Creek, the room was packed with towns folk as well as union members who were, in essence, explaining to the gathering, including the BPU staff and the Verizon management that there was a covenant between the customers and the company to provide FiOS and broadband service, not to mention making sure that the phone lines worked -- for voice and data applications.

Stow Creek and the neighboring town of Greenwich have had problems and regularly lose even working phone service during storms -- and that includes cell phone service.

The outcomes of this failure to upgrade the telecom infrastructure and to keep upgrading until everyone got service have harmed the U.S. economy -- and customers. In fact, in virtually every state commitments were made to upgrade the networks to fiber optic services to reach all customers, not to mention schools, libraries and hospitals, paid for by excess telephone charges on customers' bills.

The international organization OCED pegs the U.S. as 16th in the world in broadband. Meanwhile, both AT&T and Verizon announced slowing to a trickle the deployments of FiOS, while AT&T claimed it was abandoning its U-Verse deployments --- if the government doesn't protect their business by supporting their FCC petition.

Of course, the companies got their 'friends,' such as ITIF, to create data and analysis to confuse the politicians. According to them nothing is wrong, even though AT&T and Verizon combined have about 9 million customers using U-Verse or FiOS TV -- out of 120 million households that's only 7.5 percent -- or that they are abandoning about half of America. (Note: ITIF does not list its funders and has refused to disclose its funding sources when asked multiple times.)

In fact, Verizon got the government to give the OK to cut a deal with the cable companies to sell their wireless service while Verizon bundles the cable companies' services -- thus killing any hopes Verizon would actually build out their fiber optic networks.

But the real kicker -- as mentioned, AT&T pulled a massive bait and switch as "U-Verse is a 'copper-to-the-home' product and is still using the aging copper wires to complete U-Verse -- so the need for any 'transition' is simply a way to remove basic regulations.

Now, to be frank, I've had problems with unions' position on many things -- as some of the policies are so tied to corporate or they believe the hype that they are willing to do things that hurt the union members or the customers.

But, it is a little-known fact that the unions have been one of the few defenders against the state-based deregulation attacks where AT&T and Verizon, working with a group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, designed model legislation then get state ALEC-member politicians to propose state legislation to close down the networks. They also have thousands of groups with financial ties to the companies, either through foundation grants or business dealings to help pull it off. And so far it has worked in 23 states and counting. While the laws vary by state, they remove basic obligations like "carrier of last resort" -- i.e., the company doesn't have to supply service, or they remove regulatory oversight -- so they let the company off the hook on basic quality of service obligations.

Moreover, this ALEC-based legislation is now at the FCC as 'principles' embodied in AT&T's FCC Petition and it will be in Congress in 2013.

In 2011-2012, CWA with AARP and other groupshelped to stop the ALEC bills in multiple Verizon East Coast states that would have closed down customers' rights for not only phone but data services.

And the ALEC-based attacks are insidious. CWA in New York pointed out in their 'Don't Hang Up on Us' campaign that language was put into the state's annual budget.

The real question is: Are the unions going take an active role in stopping the closing down of the networks? Are they going to help to get the networks get upgraded, as it's a win-win -- building the networks ensures customers get broadband and new services and also ensures that there are jobs and economic growth in the state and community.

As Bill Huber put it,

Our members and their families, live, work and pay taxes and vote in communities throughout New Jersey. We are on the front line of telecommunications service delivery in the state and we know, first hand, how Verizon failed to deliver promised broadband service. We therefore decided as a union, to become an advocate for the customers we service.

Ed Starr, Esq., Business Manager IBEW Local 2321, Massachusetts adds:

It is unfortunate but the telecom unions throughout the country are besieged by the telecommunications companies with their regulatory and legislative agenda. Collectively, the unions and their members need to address this attack on the union membership as an advocate for the communities and the consumers who are also affected, as the basic US telecom infrastructure is being abandoned. Consumers are left with very little competition and an inferior, costly wireless alternative, compared to a state-of-the-art all fiber optic network in which the current union workers are ready to build and maintain. Grassroots consumer activism by the unions and their members, calling for with a new national telecom policy should be paramount.

Shouldn't America be Number 1 in the world in broadband not 16th? Shouldn't everyone get served?

And should AT&T's Petition be allowed to strip-mine customers' rights and close down the networks -- and thus shut down the union jobs?

We're all in this together so let's work together.

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