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Report: AT&T cuts damage network

Between January 2017 and January 2019, telecom company reduced its outside plant technicians in Michigan by 26%.

June 28, 2019
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Global telecommunications company AT&T, for the past two years, has cut 26% of its Michigan workforce, leading to dilapidation in wireless infrastructure and services for rural areas of the state, according to a recent report.

The Communications Workers of America conducted an investigation at AT&T facilities serviced by CWA members. The report documented job cuts by AT&T over the last two years.

Between January 2017 and January 2019, AT&T reduced its outside plant technicians in Michigan by 26%, from 2,304 to 1,704, according to the report. In the same time, the company reduced its total Michigan wireline workforce by 26%, as well, going from 4,157 to 3,067.

AT&T also reduced its Michigan call center workforce by 46% in the last two years, the report added.

Amy Fetherolf, senior writer and editor for CWA, said within the last couple of weeks, AT&T cut 147 jobs statewide, with 35 in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area. Additionally, since the federal tax overhaul of 2017 went into effect, AT&T has eliminated more than 23,000 jobs nationwide. AT&T got a $21 billion windfall from that tax cut and promised to invest in communities and create thousands of new jobs, she added.

“We need next-generation fiber networks in all of our communities — not just the wealthiest areas of the biggest cities,” Fetherolf said. “And people in rural areas that don’t have fiber networks or good cell phone coverage still depend on having well-trained, experienced technicians available to address service problems on the aging network.”

Brandy Bell-Truskey, regional media relations representative for AT&T, said rapid changes in technology are largely responsible for hiring and employment changes across the telecom industry. AT&T lost over 412,000 wireline access lines in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin since the beginning of 2017, a decrease of nearly 32% in two years.

“That includes a loss of over 85,000 wireline access lines in Michigan in the same time period, a decrease of nearly 30% in just over two years,” Bell-Truskey added.

In addition, major TV providers saw an 80% year-over-year increase in cord cutting in the first quarter of 2019 and currently are losing 12,000 subscribers a day, Bell-Truskey said. That means less work for things like installing and maintaining satellite dishes.

“Many of our union-represented employees have a job offer guarantee that ensures they are offered another job with the company if their current job is eliminated,” she said.

In Michigan, AT&T has focused its resources on building its all-fiber network to select neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, Detroit and Ann Arbor metro areas, as well as upgrading its wireless network.

CWA said it is supportive of these investments, but the all-fiber deployment is limited to 12 million customer locations nationwide, representing less than a quarter of the estimated 55 million customers in its 21-state wireline footprint.

The focus on certain metro areas of Michigan, coupled with the drop in employment, has left AT&T’s network in rural and many suburban and urban communities in disrepair, CWA claimed. In these communities, copper cable, for many poor and elderly residents the only source of landline and phone internet, is significantly damaged. The systemic disrepair results in poor quality and repeat service complaints, like static on a phone line when it rains because of damaged cables, according to the report.

In the course of representing its members, CWA convened a roundtable of outside plant technicians from across the Midwest to learn about systemic problems at AT&T. During the meetings, members said AT&T’s garages are not stocking the necessary equipment to maintain the rural plant. The workers also claimed AT&T’s project timekeeping system prevents them from taking the time necessary to do a thorough repair of damaged cable or equipment. 

For example, if a serious problem takes more than a few hours to fix, managers encourage the workers to find a temporary solution or risk facing disciplinary action. The result is insufficient fixes, like brittle plastic bags placed over splice boxes, leading to further plant deterioration and future issues, the report said.

Images in the report showed damaged connector boxes, terminals and pedestals, as well as rotting and splitting telephone poles in various regions of Michigan. Most prominently, deterioration was documented in Flint, but several damage cases also were documented in Grand Rapids.

Bell-Truskey said AT&T’s network team already has started investigating issues where connector boxes and other utilities are damaged and will make needed repairs, as is routine when someone calls on an issue.

CWA also pointed to the passage of House Bill 4314 of 2011, an act to amend Public Act 179 of 1991, which pertains to regulation of the telecommunications industry. CWA argued the bill severely reduced public oversight of the telecommunications industry.

According to the language of the bill, the purpose of the act is to “allow and encourage competition to determine the availability, prices, terms and other conditions of providing telecommunication services,” among similar goals.

CWA argued, however, eliminating public oversight and relying solely on competition has failed to ensure AT&T meets its statutory obligation to provide quality service to everyone in Michigan.

The Communications Workers of America is a telecommunications union representing 700,000 public and private-sector workers in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. CWA members work in telecommunications and information technology, the airline industry, news media, broadcast and cable television, education, health care and public service, law enforcement, manufacturing and other fields.

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