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,

[6] “FCC Seeks Comment on Resolving Disputes Over Pole Replacement Costs,” FCC,  March 18, 2022,

[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.

North Korea has been much in the news lately, but, for an object-lesson in how to combat news management by the state, we may look south of the 38th parallel. For, during recent months, the legacy of authoritarian rule in the Republic of Korea (ROK) has once again exploded into public view – not as an ancient memory, but as a continuing abuse of democratic freedoms.  Media workers’ response to the South Korean state’s controls over free expression merit our attention.

Thirty years ago, a nation-wide democracy movement led by intellectuals, students, workers, farmers and various other groups drew a global spotlight on the Republic of Korea.[1] It led, in 1987, to the toppling of the country’s long-standing military dictatorship. This regime change opened up additional opportunities for Koreans to pursue the process of political democratization. These, however, did not succeed. While there were continued efforts to reduce economic disparity, curtail corporate power and improve social welfare, successive liberal governments weren’t able to deliver the political and economic reforms that they had promised. Instead, South Korea subordinated itself to a market-driven neoliberal system.[2] Regaining power, conservative administrations, first under Lee Myung-Bak and then Park Geun-hye – whose father, General Park Jung-Hee, had imposed a military regime on the country until his assassination in 1979 – have again undermined Korea’s democratic path.

The seesaw has now thankfully swung the other way. One year ago, millions of Koreans filled the streets for a period of six months: students, women’s groups, labor- and farmers unions, and the general public. The trigger was a corruption scandal that the president proved unable to contain. But the underlying factors included widespread anger about increasing economic inequality, rising youth unemployment, contingent labor[3] and the deteriorating conditions faced by public sector workers. This “candlelight movement” ultimately succeeded in bringing down President Park Geun-Hye in December, 2016. In the wake of historically massive protests, Park was impeached for her corruption and abuses of power.[4] A new president, Moon Jae-in of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, took office in 2017.

But the movement, the latest incarnation of South Korea’s decades-long struggle for a democracy that would include media reform as well as government- and corporate accountability and workers’ rights,[5] is still far from finished.


A corporate-driven society overseen by a complicit state, the United States is being steadily saturated by surveillance tools and practices; indeed, surveillance studies is today a substantial field of academic inquiry, with research published regularly in Surveillance and Society, as well as in a growing number of books.[1] After Edward Snowden’s exposures of the National Security Agency (NSA)’s mass surveillance in 2013, thousands of academics rightly signed a letter condemning the US government’s spying program.[2] However, surveillance-sensitive academics have turned a blind eye toward academe itself.

Surveillance technologies have encroached far into the work-lives of students and faculty, to the point that we may speak of an Academic Surveillance Complex (ASC). To “improve” student performance and to “scientifically” smooth and speed student progress, “data driven education” programs are capturing, tracking, collating, and analyzing data on student learning and social behavior; on students’ interactions with teachers; and on the labor of teachers themselves.

The pretense is that this is all positive – an enhancement of the educational process. The emergence of an ASC, however, is better understood as an offshoot of a multifaceted structural transformation of higher education, which has been underway for half a century.[3] This metamorphosis is both technological and institutional. By enabling the social relations of learning and teaching to be revamped, networking technologies are driving forward a sweeping trend to commodification: they are helping to turn education into a profit-making business. Today’s emerging ASC is a part of this encompassing shift.

Wiring Education 

At its outset during the early postwar decades, robust US economic growth and robust state and federal support for public universities both stimulated and restrained the process of wiring education for profit. (A convenient historical marker is provided by an organization called Educom, which has tried since the 1960s to insinuate networking technologies.) In today’s context of chronic stagnation, by contrast, “disrupting” education in order to render it a site of capital accumulation has become a determining trend. As we write, for example, Purdue University has signed an agreement to acquire Kaplan Higher Education – a for-profit chain – and to re-establish it as a free-standing subsidiary of the Indiana-based university system.[4] All told, global education is estimated to be a $5+ trillion market, eight times the size of the commercial software market and three times that of the entertainment market.[5] Already prominent in South America and East Asia, for-profit educational institutions are today making additional inroads in Africa.[6]


The presidential inauguration, and the Women’s March on Washington the next day, revealed the extent of the social and political polarization that exists in the United States: glimpses of the right-wing surge around Trump – and of counter-power, stoking a possibility of radical change.

The incoming Republican president’s inner circle of advisors and his cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires are committed to an authoritarian plutocracy at home, and an abandonment of multilateralism in favor of power politics abroad.[1] Only slightly distanced is a Republican-controlled Congress that is dead-set on cutting already-insufficient wages, benefits, and working conditions, and that is eagerly directing attacks against poor people, women, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and the LGBQT community. Violations of the human rights of the US people are spreading:  Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from seven heavily Muslim countries does damage both domestically and internationally – and his support for torture presages more.

The new administration presides over a political party system that is in disarray. Trump’s candidacy came as a deep affront to members of the Republican Party establishment, whom he knocked off one by one.  Beginning his run for the nomination as an outsider, he climaxed it by taking over the Republican Party. The results of the election then blasted the Democrats into near-inconsequentiality. Trump’s presidency therefore did not emerge out of the party structures that shape – and strangle – US political life: He is a loose cannon, and this goes beyond his temperament.

Considerable contingency also suffuses the counter-power.  The overwhelming success of the Women’s March – people in the millions turning out, not only in Washington but also in hundreds of other US cities and around the world – made it the largest day of protest in US history.[2] Included were many who demanded an end to racist violence and gender discrimination, and who insisted that the United States be restructured in radical and inclusive ways. Many other participants wanted chiefly to vent their angst and fury at Trump’s ascendancy:  Socially and politically, it’s a complex formation.  The strategic question is whether it will become a bearer of “resistance,” as Angela Davis hopefully put it, that goes on to contest each violation perpetrated by Trump’s four-year incumbency.

It’s early days, but it’s already clear that the new Administration’s forceful threats to our public information system will figure in deciding this question.

Attention has aptly focused on “Alternative Facts”: the term with which Trump aide Kellyanne Conway attempted to deflect NBC journalist Chuck Todd, when he challenged her on the new Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s bald-faced lie: that the audience for the Trump inauguration was the largest in US presidential history.[3]  More revealing was Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s intervention. Preibus told Chris Wallace on Fox News “The point is not the crowd size, the point is that the attacks and the attempts to delegitimize this president on day one – and we’re not going to sit around and take it…there’s an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen.  We’re going to fight back tooth and nail every day, and twice on Sunday.”[4]  Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, then declared that the media are the “opposition party”[5]; and, the next day, Trump himself echoed Bannon’s words.[6]

Some may compare these attacks on the press to those of the Nixon Administration. Remember Vice President Spiro Agnew, who cried out that the media were “nattering nabobs of negativism;” recollect Nixon’s Office of Telecommunications Policy, which became his Administration’s top-gun against commercial newscasters as well as PBS officials – for producing news and documentaries that it deemed inimical to the US war on Indochina. Even-keeled analysts, however, also need to recall a more immediate precursor, the Obama Administration, whose anti-press measures were considered the most extreme since Nixon and even garnered a report from the Committee To Protect Journalists.[7] That report quoted New York Times reporter David Sanger that “this is the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”[8]  Obama’s efforts at media control persisted, furthermore, into the final days of his presidency. Before leaving the White House, Obama quietly gave the green light (buried in the provisions of the 2017 Defense Authorization Act) to create a Global Engagement Center (GEC) housed within the State Department. The purpose of the GEC is to “lead the coordination, integration, and synchronization of Government-wide communications activities directed at foreign audiences abroad in order to counter the messaging and diminish the influence of international terrorist organizations.” [9] The little known GEC will become part of a massive and longstanding US global propaganda machine.

Trump’s people are indeed indulging in innuendo and smears, and adopting Nixon’s preferred strategy of direct government intimidation to create a chilling atmosphere.  However, to take full measure of what is occurring requires that we move beyond journalism, to sketch a more far-reaching campaign to uproot and transform our overall system of public information. This many-sided endeavor is also, crucially, anchored both in ideology and political-economy.