Troy Walcott, a 39-year-old cable technician, felt vindicated last month when New York moved to expel his employer, Charter Communications, for allegedly failing to keep its promises to the state. “I shouted to myself,” Walcott said about hearing the news. “We’ve been speaking so long about the company’s wrongdoing, and people have agreed with [us], but nothing has been done.”
Walcott and more than 1,000 other members of Local 3 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have been on strike for over a year against Charter, which provides cable TV, Internet, and telephone service under the name Spectrum. The workers staged a walkout after Charter moved to replace its union health insurance and pension plans with the firm’s standard benefits.
Not only could the state action soften Charter’s resistance to the union, it has also further opened the door for Walcott and other strikers to launch a cooperative Internet provider or for the city to create a municipally owned network of its own. Advocates say either model could improve broadband service across the city, offering reduced cost, expanded access, good jobs, and a chance to ensure net neutrality in New York.
“While any telecom company that’s interested in working with us would need to submit detailed plans, I am deeply interested to see what a telecom worker co-op would look like,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told The Nation in a statement.
Walcott said that in some ways switching to a co-op model would be straightforward: “We can easily take [Charter’s New York City business] over and then basically just change the name on the door and continue to make the same profits, [but] let the people of the city share it.” Failing that, he said his fellow union members could launch a broadband provider that lures disaffected customers away from the telecom giant.
Christopher Mitchell, who leads a community-broadband initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance, calls the situation with Charter a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for New York City. “We don’t want these deadbeat cable companies to be failing constantly,” he said.
Of course Charter won’t leave New York easily. Barring a settlement, Charter will fight in court to stay put, and even if the company loses, it could cost billions to purchase Charter’s New York City infrastructure. Across the state, the company reportedly has more than 2.6 million subscribers, and serves an estimated 1.5 million households in New York City. Nonetheless, Charter’s alleged misconduct and uncertain future have provided fertile ground for a cooperative or city-owned provider to take root—even if it can’t acquire Charter’s local network.