“We’re the phone company, we don’t care.” –Lily Tomlin
Even before the lockdown, we all hated our ISPs. Comcast routinely won “worst company in America” polls. AT&T was a trash-fire of endless boondoggles and scandals. Verizon charged you $12/month to rent a modem, and also charged you $12/month to not rent a modem. Everyone hated Frontier for its slow speeds, which were revealed to be the result of the company’s practice of “installing” phone lines by tying them to trees with twine or draping them over shrubs. New York State ordered Charter/Spectrum to leave the state and never come back.
Then the pandemic struck, and terrible internet service became a matter of survival: it was how your kids went to school, how you visited the doctor, how you saw family, how you participated in civics and politics, and, for those of us who were lucky enough to have remote-capable jobs, how you earned your living.
The dismal state of the American telecoms industry, where monopolies divided up the country into non-competing exclusive territories like Pope Alexander VI dividing up the “New World,” suddenly became a lot more important.
The carriers didn’t give a shit. The feds showered them in billions, buying up their junk bonds and writing fat checks for PPP loans. Telco execs paid themselves bonuses and helped out their shareholders with massive stock buybacks.
But for workers and subscribers, it was a very different story. Charter-Spectrum’s CEO Thomas Rutledge (an asshole) paid himself the highest salary of any US CEO, while refusing to pay for his technicians’ PPE or hand sanitizer. In lieu of hazard pay, the installers who came to our homes were given coupons to eat at restaurants that had shuttered for the lockdown. Charter-Spectrum’s back office staff — who could have done their jobs from home — were required to go into work lest they goof off on company time. Charter-Spectrum offices became superspreader sites.
White-collar workers whose bosses would let them work from home struggled, thanks to the carriers’ unwillingness to maintain or improve their infrastructure. In Hollywood and Burbank, film industry types were hamstrung by crawling “broadband” speeds that wouldn’t let them download and upload their work files. Eventually, a 90-year-old local resident shamed AT&T into providing decent service by taking out an ad in the Wall Street Journal, shaming the company for its gouging and underinvestment.
For the working poor — the “essential workers” — it was far worse. These Americans are likely to live in “broadband deserts” that follow the old redlining demarcations that were established by the racist housing policies of the previous century. These people — overwhelming Black and brown —often had no broadband, which is how their kids ended up going to Zoom school from the parking lot of the local Taco Bell.