Greed, Fear, and Public Need in Today’s Telecommunications

How are telecommunications network development priorities shaped? Recent news stories shed some light. A profit motive is overwhelming other social objectives in network infrastructure projects, from utility poles throughout rural areas to Arctic Ocean fiber-optic cables.

Utility Poles

In the US, it is a given that broadband infrastructure will not be built out unless there is money to be made – because business interests have been permitted to provide internet access across the country. The COVID pandemic made the results clear, as people in poor and rural areas struggled to access the internet – which is no longer a luxury but a necessity for work, school, and life in general.

The pandemic that claimed over one million lives in the US propelled federal intervention to expand broadband infrastructure, by allocating $65 billion as part of the Infrastructure Investment Bill and American Jobs Act (IIJA) in 2021.[1] In 2022, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that it would fund over $1.2 billion to expand broadband services in rural areas as part of its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund involving 23 broadband providers.[2]

This is good news to be sure; however, a contest between opposed corporate interests erupted around a 19th-century invention that is still crucial to today’s broadband infrastructure – utility poles – stymieing the FCC’s plan.[3]

Utility poles are so ubiquitous as to be nearly unseen in our built environment. However, in order to build broadband infrastructure, internet providers must either lease access to existing networks of poles, or install their own new poles to attach their cables and hardware. Both of these are expensive and politically-charged options.

Most utility poles are owned by electricity- and telecom companies. These owners can leverage political-economic power to slow down or block the construction of new broadband networks by their competitors. In the past, ATT, which owns many of the approximately 160 million poles around the US,[4] was able to drag out the internet fiber buildout of Google, its competitor. Eventually, the FCC stepped into the fray and approved its One Touch Make Ready (OTMR) rule. The rule favored Google. Under OTMR, companies who need to attach cables to existing utility poles can mount their hardware without waiting for the pole owners to prepare for the new attachments. On the surface, the rule could speed up the broadband rollout and appeared to serve the public interest; however, OTMR also included a fatal anti-labor provision. The Communication Workers of America (CWA), which represents telecommunication workers, was vehemently opposed to OTMR because the new rule allowed internet companies to hire third-party contract workers, thereby bypassing union labor.[5]

With the recent windfall of federal broadband money fueling additional construction of broadband network infrastructure, a new feud over utility poles has erupted.  This time, pole owners including ATT and Verizon, alongside electricity companies, are pitted against internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Charter Communications – who don’t own poles and who wish to attach their equipment and cables. The crux of the fight is who is going to cough up the money to put new equipment on existing poles or replace old poles to attach new cables. ATT and Verizon want to preserve the existing rules, under which the financial burden is squarely on the attachers. Charter, representing fiber builders, is lobbying the FCC to shift the costs of new utility poles to the pole owners.  Both are competing for billions of dollars in public funds.

The FCC is currently soliciting public comments on the rules in order to negotiate the current dispute[6] – “to strike a balance between the local authority of pole owners and internet service providers,” as the Wall Street Journal puts it.[7]  While the FCC referees between the two sets of entrenched corporate powers, however, the public interest twists in the wind.  Both poll owners and attachers have already enriched themselves for decades through price-gouging, government subsidies, tax breaks, rule-bending, and labor repression.

The debacle over utility poles is evidence of how corporate greed continues to overshadow social need. A similar tendency is also imprinted on subsea fiber-optic cables that could benefit remote communities in Alaska and Canada.

Arctic subsea fiber-optic cables

Throughout US history, financial traders have repeatedly sought to carve private informational advantages into networks. A Northern merchant’s reliance on privately-run express mail services in the 1830s conferred advanced knowledge of the condition of the Southern cotton harvest – enabling them to make a speculative killing.[8] Today’s network counterparts are more complex, but comparable. This is illustrated by the ongoing arms race conducted by giant financial firms to exploit subsea fiber-optic cable networks.

High-frequency trading of equities, relying on proprietary algorithms and computer networks, accounts for about half of total US equity trading and 35% of the EU’s.[9] For the hedge funds, megabanks, and other such participants – which are able to make the continuing investments in digital technology that are needed to exploit high-frequency trading – it can be highly lucrative.  Playing the market for them is less about making shrewd estimates of specific companies’ earning potential, than about pursuing ceaseless innovation in digital technology and network infrastructure. For many years, high-frequency traders (HFT) like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan and the like have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in technology and deployed trading systems that trace microsecond stock price movements. They are competing for speed and superior information processing power as their HFT platforms analyze multiple exchanges simultaneously and buy and sell orders in fractions of a second.[10] 

The servers used by these trading networks need to be located as close as possible to those operated by each stock exchange in order to cut latency. And, for big financial institutions, ultra-fast links built along the shortest routes between exchanges are key. These networks are not, however, stationary outcomes but moving targets, akin to Olympic speed records. Technology and geography continue to permit more rapid transmission and, sometimes, shorter routes. For large financial intermediaries, “shaving off just a few milliseconds of connectivity between two trading locations can earn them tens of millions of dollars a year – so they’re willing to pay extra for the fastest path.”[11] Which brings us to a projected Arctic subsea fiber-optic cable. 

The ice that has long covered the Arctic is melting quickly because of climate change. A Finnish-Japanese-Alaskan joint venture hopes to take advantage of this warming to lay a 10,500 mile cable, to permit data to transit between Asia, Europe, and North America.[12] This Arctic route would grant broadband service to remote communities in northern Alaska and Canada.  It also would offer the shortest – thus the fastest – connection between London and Tokyo and, explains, Isabelle Bousquette, could benefit banks and other financial traders, which gain extra profit if they are able to send and receive information ahead of rivals.[13] Customer greed is a propulsive motivator.

However, it is not the only factor.  Arctic cables have tempted projectors for over twenty years, but the challenges remain daunting. Construction, maintenance, and repairs can only be performed during the summer months.  If the cable is damaged or broken during the winter, fixing it will have to wait – perhaps for months – until the ice sheet has melted sufficiently. Meanwhile, service is unavailable.

In these circumstances, fear offsets greed: big corporate customers have been loath to commit their money in advance. The venture has only signed up one client, a Nordic nonprofit which will buy a mere 6-8 percent of the cable system’s projected capacity (The venture needs to sell at least half before it can initiate work on the system). All, however, may not be lost. The projectors have been stressing the importance of a “secure, resilient data infrastructure” linking the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan before the European Commission, in light of inflamed tensions between Russia, China, and the West.[14] Perhaps, as so often, so-called military preparedness will prime the pump?

Whether corporate interests clash over utility poles or Artic cables, what is most striking is the invisibility of social need in policymaking discourse. Network development is implanted deeply within the existing political-economic system. To reverse currently distorted priorities and construct a viable network infrastructure, we will need to dismantle this dominative order.


[1]NTIA’s Role in Implementing the Broadband Provisions of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” Broadband USA.

[2]FCC Announces Over $1.2B for Rural Broadband in 32 States,” FCC, January 228, 2022.

[3] Ryan Tracy, Fights Over Rural America’s Phone Poles Slow Internet Rollout, Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2023.

[4] Robert A. Zabel, Jeffrey J. Morrell, “Decay problems associated with some major uses of wood products,Wood Microbiology, 2000.

[5] “FCC Adopts Dangerous, Anti-Worker “One Touch, Make Ready” Policy,” Communications Workers of America, August 9, 2018,

https://cwa-union.org/news/fcc-adopts-dangerous-anti-worker-one-touch-make-ready-policy-0

[6] “FCC Seeks Comment on Resolving Disputes Over Pole Replacement Costs,” FCC,  March 18, 2022, https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-seeks-comment-resolving-disputes-over-pole-replacement-costs.

[7] Ryan Tracy, Fights Over Rural America’s Phone Poles Slow Internet Rollout, Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2023.

[8] Dan Schiller, Crossed Wires: The Conflicted History of US Telecommunications, From the Post Office to the Internet (New York: Oxford University Press 2023), 24-33.

[9] Benjamin Clapham, Martin Haferkorn, and Kai Zimmermann, “The Impact of High-Frequency Trading on Modern Securities Markets,” Business and Information Systems Engineering 65 (1), 2023: 7-24.

[10] Steve Kroft, “How Speed Traders Are Changing Wall Street,” Sixty Minutes, CBS, October 10, 2010.

[11] “Hibernia Pulls Ahead in Trans-Atlantic Speed Race,” TeleGeography’s CommsUpdate, September 30, 2010, quoting TeleGeography Vice President of Research Tim Stronge.

[12] Isabelle Bousquette, “What Will It Take to Connect the Artic? $1.2 Billion, 10,000 Miles of Fiber-Optic Cable and Patience,” Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2023.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

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