There is no question that one of President Biden’s most significant achievements in 2021 was passing the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The investments in the bill will raise the standard of living for Michiganders, especially the money being allocated to improve our state’s broadband infrastructure.
But to fully realize the potential of that funding to bridge Michigan’s digital divide, elected officials and regulators must direct it to proven technologies, commit to creating good jobs and provide proper oversight of the build out from the start.
I know the telecom industry well; after working in it for more than 20 years as a technician, I have seen firsthand the inequities created in past broadband build out efforts. In Saginaw, where I work, the more affluent west side of the river has access to high-speed fiber-optic networks, whereas the lower-income east side has been largely left behind. Our state’s economy and our children’s futures depend on building broadband right and fairly.
The infrastructure bill requires that states give preference to broadband providers with a record of labor law compliance and proactive plans to respect workers’ rights. Michigan should give preference to applicants that commit to providing professional training to meet high standards for work quality and safety, employ a local workforce with job pipelines for traditionally marginalized communities and respect workers’ right to collective bargaining. In doing so, we will not only strengthen our state’s broadband infrastructure but ensure this funding creates sustainable, good paying jobs in the process.
I’m very proud of my work, but myself and people in communities across Michigan haven’t had a say about where broadband is deployed. Those decisions have been made by telecom and cable executives under pressure from investors to deliver maximum profit at minimal cost. This profit motive means deployment largely goes to higher income, dense areas with larger customer bases.
According to a 2020 study done by my union (Communications Workers of America), FCC data shows that in Michigan’s predominantly rural counties a grand total of 291 households have access to fiber out of 320,970 total homes served by AT&T in those counties — that’s 0.1% of all households.
That is unacceptable, and it is why our state leaders must draft a broadband deployment plan that serves the public interest, and ensure that the Michigan Public Service Commission has the authority to provide proper oversight in the areas of public safety, network resiliency and consumer protection. As it currently stands, the commission has no authority over VoIP and broadband. Broadband consumers are left without recourse during outages and when providers fail to deliver promised services.
Our legislators are responsible for ensuring the best technology is available to all communities and that the deployment is carried out as promised. Encouragingly, elected officials in our state understand that this is a crisis — including Gov, Gretchen Whitmer, who recently announced the establishment of the Office of Rural Development. One responsibility of this new office is to, “collaborate with the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office to facilitate expansion of high-speed internet connections in rural communities.”
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State leaders will be charged with drafting a broadband deployment plan in the months ahead — a critical framework that will unlock hundreds of millions of federal dollars and could finally help bridge the digital divide, if done right. That’s why alongside my fellow union brothers and sisters, we have been advocating to “Build Broadband Better” at the local, state and federal level.
As the Michigan Legislature’s session kicks into full gear, join us in supporting legislation to ensure that our state exercises oversight to hold internet service providers accountable to their promises. It’s crucial that everyone reach out to their local elected officials so that all Michiganders can access reliable and high-speed internet connections.
Martin Szeliga is a technician of more than 20 years, executive vice president of the Local 4108 Communication Workers of America union and a proud member of the union’s Broadband Brigade. He resides with his family in Pinconning.