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Malkia A. Cyril Headshot

In Defense of Sub-Standard Cell Phone Service: Big Media Gets Rescued. Again.

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If the ethos of America is about removing unfair barriers to individual opportunity and success, then it is un-American to give low-income communities substandard Internet service that creates barriers to economic opportunity and democratic engagement. Still, Metro PCS is doing just that -- offering a cell phone package to poor people that is only affordable because it contains significant roadblocks to full Internet access.

Despite outrage from both the civil rights and public interest communities over the gross inequity of a tiered Internet -- one for the wealthy and a different one for the poor -- the Minority Media and Telecommunication Council's David Honig insisted in Politico this week that the company's pricing plan is standard industry practice and beneficial to low-income families that want affordable service. "They have offered higher-priced data plans, they are not blocking service," Honig said. "Not everything you call network neutrality leads to network equality for minorities." Great soundbite -- too bad the facts disprove the fiction.

Metro PCS has seized upon recent rules passed by the FCC which fail to protect wireless users as an opportunity to tier the cell phone data packages it offers, and make a killing on the backs of its poorest customers. Lowering the price for partial Internet service while calling it "unlimited access" is a fraudulent gimmick that Metro PCS hopes will confuse low-income consumers into buying its phones. Yep, tiered service is becoming, as Honig suggests, "standard industry practice". The FCC's rules paved the way for Metro PCS to give its poorest consumers access to only a few websites, sell that substandard service at a discounted price, and call it "affordable Internet service". Cheaper phone service is great -- and the right thing to do. If only having full access to the whole Internet wasn't such a necessary prerequisite for democratic participation, then MetroPCS might actually be the social justice hero Honig makes them out to be- instead of the poverty pimp they actually are.

There are three underlying assumptions that guide any defense of Metro PCS's "poor people's packages".

One. The free market, unrestricted by regulation, is the best way to ensure affordability of products and services. Okay, let's get real, has that ever been true? We need some governance -- that's called democracy.

Two. MetroPCS isn't blocking content or restricting access because they offer full data access at a higher price -- so if you want the WHOLE Internet, you just have to pay more.

Thing is, if you went to the doctor for an illness, and the doctor sold you half the medicine you needed to get well and called it a promotion -- you'd call that doctor crazy. That's because you understand that getting less than what you need to be well will still leave you sick. In this new digital era, full Internet access is needed to participate adequately in both our democracy and our economy, so lowering the baseline standard of what is considered minimum Internet access threatens democratic and human rights, and its just plain wrong. The age of believing that consumers should "get what they pay for" when it comes to food, water, electricity, heat, and basic communications services needs to come to an end. These are utilities that meet basic needs and as such they should be treated as fundamental human rights. No one who's job it is to advocate for the rights of "minorities" should equate affordable service with substandard service.

Three. Privatization and corporate expansion is the best option for opportunity for people of color and low-income communities.

This myth has plagued the struggle for justice, opportunity, and freedom for centuries, and yet is rooted in the desperate reality that there are few sources of economic support for communities that are disenfranchised by race, isolated by geography, or excluded by class. But our fight for freedom has never been sponsored by a corporation. Instead of providing opportunity, big business has historically and to this day put a stranglehold on communities of color and poor communities worldwide. Whether it is the coal industry, the oil industry, the food industry, or the telecommunications industry -- big businesses have a bad habit of decimating municipal, state, and federal budgets; destroying unions, ignoring the toxic and environmental impacts of production, and siding with the conservative Right to eliminate regulation -- and hiding it all behind HD commercials, brands we all want, scholarships for college, and diversity in certain parts of its work force.

Truth time. We do not see the low-wage immigrant workforce toiling behind the scenes to create this nation's technology infrastructure. The fact that there are good jobs for technologists and coders in the corporate world and no jobs for these professionals in government or communities is actually a barrier to opportunity and makes us increasingly dependent on private interests. And the fact that unions and the largest civil rights organizations sometimes fail to counter the telecom industry has little to do with their politics, and much more to do with the stranglehold telecom companies have on jobs, utilities, education, prisons, and development in poor communities. At what point do we recognize that as people of color our right to economic opportunity must not be tethered to the corporate right to profit? At what point do we decide that public/private partnership doesn't mean the wholesale sell-out of public infrastructure to private interests? At what point can we tie our politics to human and civil rights again, as we once did, instead of to commerce and the whims of the market? How about right now.

There are a few great companies out there, ones that support innovation, strengthen economic opportunity and understand their responsibility to the society at large. But the telecommunications industry will never provide the road to opportunity it claims to without strong labor and consumer protections. Ask the people of Detroit, Michigan or Gary, Indiana, or any of the U.S. cities industry has abandoned for more and more profit elsewhere.

Still, MetroPCS seems to have a champion in David Honig. Rather than helping poor communities find ways to defend their rights as media consumers, or pushing for rules of the road that hold these businesses accountable to something more than the financial bottom line -- Honig claims that MetroPCS was falsely accused by net neutrality advocates. He says their $40 limited access package is a good thing for poor people. I disagree.

MMTC has the potential to be an important and powerful voice for "minority" communities as we turn our attention toward reforming the Universal Service Fund, and decreasing the digital divide in the 21st century. I look forward to working closely with them on these issues. But advocating for the full adoption of high-speed broadband in under-represented communities without questioning the quality of the Internet service we get, and leaving the most vulnerable cell phone users open to the predatory practices of the cell phone industry is less than adequate representation.

The bottom line is that we need corporate investment -- but every industry needs strong protections for consumers and for workers. The fight to protect wireless users and keep under-represented consumers safe from predatory cell phone companies like MetroPCS is one MMTC should champion. Instead, they have once again chosen to defend the rights of big business over those who are most often abused by those businesses. It's not a good look.

What does it take to demand and win what we at the Center for Media Justice call "Mobile Justice"? It takes all of us- even my friends at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council.

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