For more than four years, New York City area unionized employees of Charter Communications have been on strike, waiting for the company to budge in contract negotiations. In their free time, they’ve been building a worker-owned ISP of their own, with a focus on expanding affordable access during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dubbed People’s Choice Communications, the ISP is part of a growing trend of local communities building their own broadband networks. Frustrated by slow speeds, high prices, and spotty coverage, more than 750 towns and cities have built some type of locally-owned and operated broadband network, a trend that’s accelerating during the pandemic.
“After we build out a network in your building, it transfers to cooperative ownership, so profits are returned to users,” the organization’s website states. “We are able to provide high-speed service in most cases for $10 to $20 a month. No more cable company ripping you off, and as an owner, you have a vote in policies like data privacy.”
People’s Choice is also a bit unique given it’s staffed entirely by striking IBEW Local #3 members.
“For over 40 years we built New York City's cable infrastructure,” project lead Troy Walcott told Motherboard. “Then Spectrum came in and decided we should no longer have jobs because we are in a union and customers should pay more for less service because they have no other choice.”
The operation, which utilizes both fixed line and wireless solutions, has already delivered broadband to several schools and housing complexes in both The Bronx and Manhattan. The venture follows on the heels of similar local efforts like NYC Mesh geared toward expanding the city’s access to affordable broadband during the pandemic.
The Charter standoff is now the longest ongoing strike in U.S. history. The problem began shortly after Charter (operating under the brand name Spectrum) acquired Time Warner Cable in 2016. After the acquisition, Walcott says the company made it abundantly clear it wasn’t flexible on issues like pensions and healthcare.
“That was evident when one of their chief negotiators promised on his mother’s grave at the negotiating table that we would never get back our retirement and medical benefits,” Walcott said.
As a result, the company’s 1,800 unionized workers began their strike on March 23, 2017, and have been on strike ever since. Not only do union officials say the company has been unwilling to meaningfully negotiate, it replaced the majority of the workers with subcontracted labor, then actively attempted to decertify the union in 2019. Walcott told me that the company broke off all communications with the workers “a long time ago.”
“As they see it they have no reason to communicate or reach out,” he said. “They own the city. No elected official, state or city entity is going to make them do anything. They control the largest part of the city's communication, they even own New York's news. So as they see it, why would they ever reach out to speak to the people they are looking to destroy?”
Union workers weren’t the only ones frustrated by Charter’s behavior in the wake of the merger.
In 2018, The New York Public Service Commission threatened to kick Charter out of New York State for what regulators said were years of broken promises. The PSC accused Charter of not only failing to meet a merger condition requiring it to deploy broadband to an additional 145,000 homes in the state, but for actively misleading regulators. The two sides settled in 2019.
Charter was also sued by the New York Attorney General for advertising broadband speeds the company couldn’t provide, has been repeatedly sued for socking subscribers with predatory fees, and generally sees some of the lowest customer satisfaction ratings in America. Last week, the company was fined $19 million for making misleading claims about its competitors.
According to Walcott, the creation of the new ISP was not only driven by Charter’s apathy to both its union employees and subscribers, but by the estimated 1.5 million New Yorkers who lack access to a fixed or wireless broadband connection during Covid.
“Watching every elected official constantly talk about finding a way to fix a problem while ignoring the solution we were already giving them motivated us,” he said. “Having elected officials thank us quietly for our sacrifice but not say anything about our strike publicly motivated us. Seeing customers denied service during COVID because they had outstanding bills motivated us.”
Last year, New York City unveiled a $157 million proposal to try and shore up broadband access in the city. Walcott said the organization reached out to New York City officials to see if they’d be willing to coordinate on the project, but never heard back.
“The city talked about support for us but never actually put action to it,” Walcott said. “We put plans forward for municipal ownership of the system which officials in the city claimed to support, and would get back to us—but never did. So we did it on our own. Our biggest struggle was doing all of this with less than nothing.“