From the Communications Side

There are foreboding winds stirring in the electronic media world: A virtual battle of titans approaches as the major telecommunications, data and video providers determine the future flow and distribution of information. The weapons include an exotic array of satellites and towers, tethered to the earth via microwave, redundant optical fiber rings with massive servers and complex miniature circuitry called femtocells. The signal makes the last half-mile dash to the home riding hair-sized strands of glass, coaxial and small gauge copper, bouncing along the way between refrigerator-sized cabinets and nodes. All or portions of many subscribers’ digital services are going wireless, riding radio frequencies: multidirectional between source, satellites, set-top boxes and handheld devices.

Comcast, NBC and General Electric: The deepening nexus between the military/industrial/media complex is characterized in the proposed merger between Comcast and NBC, which is owned by General Electric. The cost of the merger is projected to be about $30 billion. This will create a strategic marriage between a major defense contractor and the nation’s largest cable company to jointly operate a network content provider that controls one in five TV viewing hours in the United States. They will certainly punish, if not destroy, the competition and independent media providers.

This new communications frontier presents a myriad of concerns for consumers and non-consumers alike; everything from the hazards associated with radio frequencies and radiation exposure to the issue of greater concentrations of media ownership in the hands of fewer wealthy individuals. Add to this the Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited funding of political campaigns from undisclosed sources, even foreign governments, and the stars are aligned for the greatest threat to democracy since the founding of the United States. Net neutrality and the power of media providers to control content is also part of this complex picture, which poses a daunting task for laypeople to grasp, much less control. In this hostile environment, print media barely resists relegation to simple advertising rags—a paper appendage of the media giants that would seemingly make them irrelevant.

Who is Rupert Murdoch? International media capitalist Rupert Murdoch owns News Corporation, which, in addition to various print media, owns the Wall Street Journal and the Fox News Channel. Interestingly, one of his first U.S. media creations was the supermarket tabloid Star, a magazine specializing in celebrity gossip and scandals. He subsequently bought the WSJ and founded Fox. In 2005, Murdoch bought Intermix Media, which owned MySpace. That same year, the New York State Attorney General filed a lawsuit alleging that MySpace secretly installed spyware and illegally sent pop-up advertisements and other intrusions to millions of computer users. Murdoch also owns an interest in Dish Network, the larger of two competing satellite dish providers in the Fresno area.

In 2010, Murdoch donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association and another million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; both transparent strategic moves. There were numerous state governors’ races in play, and at least 10 states flipped from Democrat to Republican leaders. Historically, governorships have served as launching pads for presidential campaigns. State governors appoint judges to Superior Courts, Courts of Appeals and State Supreme Courts. Add to this the fact that they preside over redistricting and can create more Republican-friendly voter districts.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce uses its resources to fight government regulation of anything and everything, with particular emphasis on the financial sector, and legislation such as the Employee Free Choice Act. During the 2010 elections, they vowed to spend around $75 million, almost exclusively focused on defeating Democrats. Now, the U.S Chamber can tap its foreign sources of income without having to disclose that source.

The communications, data and video industry is not subject to recession-related fluctuations to the same degree as other industries. Although it is true that families are cutting back on their entertainment choices, DSL and increasingly higher data speeds are now considered a necessity of life. Comcast’s 2010 third-quarter revenue rose 7.3% to $9.5 billion. Profits were only curbed by the huge layout for the NBC purchase. Total revenue for the telecommunications industry is forecast to grow by at least 10% during 2010 to around $1.4 trillion.

Telecommunications and Video Technicians: The telecommunications industry is in a period of turmoil and evolution as it transforms itself from communications to a data and video provider. In this theater, Comcast is king, with a commanding position in video, and a growing share of the data and phone services. Yet another struggle is quietly playing itself out: There is a growing class of sweatshop workers in our midst. They toil endless hours in the sun and rain, in holes and vaults beneath city streets and sidewalks, and on poles and strands of wire looping through backyards and trees.

This class of workers is subject to huge disparities in pay and treatment, generally determined by union representation, or their status as at-will employees of a major corporation, and piece-rate employees of a subcontractor of that same company. A portion of the industry in California, primarily ATT and Verizon, is represented by locals of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), 70,000 strong in California, Nevada and Hawaii. CWA, with 700,000 members nationwide, grew out of the post–World War II struggles of the National Federation of Telephone Workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Telephone Workers Organizing Committee.

Broadband-based services are the backbone of a modern society, but the workers who are vital to its success do not receive the recognition they deserve. And the playing field even between the titans is not level. On one hand, union pay scales and benefits produce incomes that are considerably higher than the non-union competitors. Yearly income for an ATT splicing technician is about $66,000 plus benefits, more than twice the median household income of $32,000 for Fresno.

Installation and maintenance technicians can earn $100,000 due to overtime during storms and other service-affecting conditions. Earnings for a Comcast technician of 20 years experience, with similar skills, working straight time at top pay do not exceed $50,000 per year. And reaching even that comparatively low level of pay on the industry scale is a difficult task, and few stay around long enough to get there, much less reach retirement.

Despite huge profits from video, data and phone service, the major providers maintain an increasingly hostile environment for employees. ATT and Verizon are downsizing, subcontracting and sending jobs out of the state, and when possible, out of the country. Comcast fights tooth and nail to resist any effort at unionizing their employees and raising their standard of living. A recent drive-by CWA to unionize just under 200 technicians in the Fresno/Visalia area is on hold. Five technicians and three managers lost their jobs during the campaign, which was fraught with violations of the National Labor Relations Act, including mock elections, captive audience meetings, false promises and disinformation.

Treatment of consumers is equally callous. Government regulatory agencies, such as the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), look the other way, for example, when phone lines are out of service for weeks at a time. Basic phone service, in general, has deteriorated since the rush for capturing the broadband market began. The “digital divide” grows as low-income and minority communities suffer discriminatory high-speed broadband deployment strategies.

Vital emergency services can also be affected by the new market priorities. In some cases, utility companies’ circumvention of codes and regulations can have tragic consequences, such as the recent San Bruno explosion that killed four persons and destroyed 38 homes. Political and regulatory conditions have created a landscape in which media conglomerates can control consumers’ choices. They will also use their newfound power to shape the public’s perception of reality and stifle dissent: We have lost the fight in the short term and must brace ourselves for the coming storm.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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