By Rand Wilson, AFL-CIO Communications Coordinator
WASHINGTON D.C. — As more than 150 supporters chanted “No more corporate greed…We need high speed!”, nearly 50 CWA members who work for Verizon in West Virginia marched into the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s headquarters in Washington last week to voice their concerns about the potential sale of their state’s telephone lines to the much smaller Frontier Communications.
Verizon Communications is selling its landlines in West Virginia and 13 other states using a tax-free loophole. Similar deals by Verizon in other states have resulted in bankruptcy, lost jobs, unmet broadband promises and poor service.
The Verizon workers traveled for over seven hours to attend the FCC rally and meetings with Commissioner Michael J. Copps and senior FCC staff. Communications Workers (CWA) of America President Larry Cohen and CWA District 2 Vice President Ron Collins led off the meeting with Copps by providing a searing critique of the proposed sale.
“Our opposition to the proposed sale is based on one overarching concern: Frontier is not financially fit to own and operate Verizon’s landline operations, including Verizon West Virginia,” Cohen said.
“As the Illinois Commerce Commission’s Administrative Law Judge, the West Virginia Consumer Advocate Division and the Public Service Commission staff have all found, this deal will result in a lack of financial fitness that cannot be cured or subject to a compromise,” said Collins. “It will simply render Frontier unfit to assume the responsibility for 4.8 million access lines serving citizens of the 14 affected states with an essential public service.”
At the meeting, members told Copps that the proposed deal is too risky for West Virginia and the other 13 affected states.
“Frontier doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to acquire operations that would triple its size. It cannot safely absorb the huge additional debt burden that comes with this deal,” said Debra Shepherd, a Verizon customer consultant from Wheeling and member of CWA Local 2006. “Frontier’s business model is to milk its operations in order to make excessive cash payments to its shareholders.”
“Did Frontier actually check out the condition of Verizon’s operations?” asked Rick Cox, a member from CWA Local 2011 in Clarksburg. “Let me tell you, it’s in very bad shape. It’s just not believable that Frontier will be able to cut expenses by 21 percent and then do a better job than Verizon which is more profitable and has much greater economies of scale.”
Frontier has only made modest commitments to deploy service at speeds between 1 and 3 megabits per second in Illinois, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington State. In contrast, the FCC has set a national goal of a minimum broadband speed of 4 megabits per second with at least 100 million households having access to 50 megabits per second service by 2015.
Moreover, Frontier has no plans to expand beyond Verizon’s existing commitments higher-speed “fiber-to-the-home” services that Verizon currently provides in portions of four states Frontier wants to acquire (Indiana, Oregon, South Carolina and Washington State).
“West Virginia already has a deep digital divide and this deal will only make it worse,” said David Fox, an outside technician from Fairmont and member of CWA Local 2004. “If the Frontier sale is approved, it would seriously hinder us from achieving the FCC’s new National Broadband Plan standards.”
CWA Representative Elaine Harris presented Copps with letters opposing the sale from West Virginia elected officials and more than 5,000 signatures of citizens on petitions.
The FCC’s five commissioners can deny the deal if a majority determines that it isn’t in the public interest. In March, an Administrative Law Judge recommended that the Illinois Commerce Commission reject the Verizon-Frontier application. Similarly, the West Virginia Public Service Commission staff and the state’s consumer advocate strongly oppose the deal.
CWA or IBEW have intervened in state regulatory proceedings on the proposed sale in West Virginia, Illinois, Ohio, and Washington. Both unions are also intervenors in the case before the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is expected to take up the case after the states have concluded their reviews. No decision has been made yet in the proceedings before the commissions in West Virginia, Illinois and Washington State. The unions’ request for a rehearing is currently pending in Ohio.
More information about why citizens are mobilizing to stop the Verizon sale to Frontier is here. For information about ending the digital divide, go here. Pictures from the rally and meeting can be viewed here.
Rand Wilson is an organizer and chief of staff at SEIU Local 888 in Boston.