Thanks to Jeff Hoel for this transcript of Episode 20 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Amalia Deloney of the Center for Media Justice discusses how Internet access relates to social justice. Listen to this episode here.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello, and welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, a production of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and muninetworks.org . I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
This is our 20th episode. Christopher Mitchell interviews Amalia Deloney, Associate Director at the Center for Media Justice. Amalia and Christopher discuss how access to the Internet has become a necessity for all income levels. She explains the reasons why corporate deals involving the drive to control spectrum have been a big concern to her organization. Many lower-income segments of the population have only one option to get online: cell phones. Christopher and Amalia also discuss some of the other campaigns taken on by the Center, and how those campaigns relate to our broadband and social justice policies. Here are Chris and Amalia.
Christopher Mitchell: Amalia Deloney, thank you so much for coming on the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. You're the Associate Director at the Center for Media Justice. Can you tell us more about your background, and what you do at the Center -- at CMJ?
Amalia Deloney: That's right. Well, thanks for having me on. It's really exciting. And podcasts are so cool. You guys are cool. You're doing cutting-edge technology.
Amalia: You know, at the Center for Media Justice, I do a little bit of everything. But I think, in the role of Associate Director, the piece that's really front-facing is that I get to kind of set the policy and kind of lead the policy, both for the Center for Media Justice but also the Media Action Grassroots Network [MAG-Net]. Which, I think, in many ways, more people know about the reach of the Center for Media Justice through the Network, you know. Many people know it's about 140 organizations deep right now. All -- from across all parts of the country. Fourteen different chapters. Minnesota, where you're based, is one of the strongest chapters, which is really exciting. And, you know, a mixture of groups. All of them really community-based organizations who, you know, lead with a social or economic justice identity, and then kind of intersect with media policy. So they understand, now, that the rules and the regulations that have to do with media and telecom policy, you know, are in many ways intimately tied to the other social and economic justice fights they're engaged in.
Chris: All right. So, that's CMJ and MAG-Net. So, what's your background? Why are you interested in all this?
Amalia: Well, you know, I came to this work as an organizer. Almost everybody at the Center for Media Justice came to the work as an organizer. And so, for many years -- Now, you know, I live outside of Chicago, but for many years, I was based in Minneapolis. And at the Main Street Project, really working primarily in rural communities with Latinos -- rural Latinos in meat-packing towns. Working on social and economic justice issues.
And, you know, I wasn't one of those people that aspired to policy. I sort of knew what it was from a distance, both in college and law school. Um, I knew what media and telecom was, but it definitely seemed like something that was way too [laughs] esoteric, or wonky, for me. And I backed into it, you know. I backed into it the same way, I think, a lot of the folks in MAC-Net backed into it. You know, we were doing massive campaigns in these rural communities. It was during a time, you know, about five years ago, when there were the largest immigration rates happening. And we saw a series of raids in each of the communities that we worked in. One in Willmar, you know. Then one in Marshalltown, Iowa. Then over in Idaho, and then Oregon.
And it was interesting, because even with the really amazing community-based work we were doing, the really strategic and tactical organizing, the amazing leadership that we had developed, in each and every instance, the place where we really lost ground immediately was the media, you know. And not just sort of the traditional ways people think about it. It wasn't just we didn't have the right sound bites in the newspaper. Or that we couldn't get our stories pushed to the front page. Or that our stories weren't seen as sort of community issues. They were seen as quote-unquote "immigrant" or "Latino" issues. I mean, that was part of it -- was representation. But moreover, you know, we had folks in the community who didn't have ac- -- like, they wanted to be producers, but they didn't have access to the materials. And so all of these kinds of questions around cost, around access, around digital literacy, around ownership, around diversity -- all of them started percolating up. You know, not as, sort of, policy stand-alone issues, but as intimately tied to, like, how are we going to help the community heal. And that's when I sort of backed into the media piece.
Chris: One of the issues that I saw you working on the hardest recently was the T-Mobile and AT&T merger. So, can you give us a sense of why that was so important for CMJ and the MAG-Net community?
Amalia: Um hum. So, you know, it goes to this question of Internet access -- that, early on, when we started talking with communities across the country, you know, we were engaged in this project with the Social Science Research Council, called Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities. And one of the things that percolated up through the story, which, of course, people knew in real terms, but they didn't talk about in policy terms, was that broadband, you know -- or, Internet access, in particular -- had become so important that it was now, you know, a prerequisite to social and economic inclusion. So, we talked to community members from across the country who gave various specific instances of how, you know, Internet had moved from this luxury to a necessity. They needed it for MFIP. They needed it for -- to apply for food stamps. They needed it to regulate their immigration or refugee status. They needed it to apply for a job. You know. The entire Minneapolis School District, for example, you know, all the parent-teacher interactions run through something called Parent Portal. Everything from setting children's parent-teacher conference to monitoring their attendance and tardiness. So, you know, out of that sort of experience, we had this framework of Internet being a necessity, not just a luxury.
But the challenge, you know, for all of these community members -- or, the biggest barrier -- was cost. You know, they couldn't afford to have, you know, the home Internet connection, plus all of the other things that go with it. So, it's not just the Internet connection. It was the computer, and it was the printer, and it was paper, and it was ink, and it was everything like that. And so, the stories started to come forward, you know, from people about how they sort of Mickey Moused -- or, how they overcame those obstacles.
And what was central to all of this was the cell phone. So that if, you know -- of course, their choice was to have a home high-speed Internet connection. But if they couldn't afford that, what was the one thing they were going to put their money towards? They were going to put their money towards a cell phone plan where they could get some Internet access.
So, when the merger came forward, you know, it was really clear for us, when you started to look at the numbers, who was impacted. It was low-income communities. And it was primarily black and Latino. You know, 18 percent of all English-speaking Latino- -- or, 18 percent of all African-Americans and 16 percent of all English-speaking Latinos basically telling Pugh, in a study, that the EXCLUSIVE way they access the Internet was through their cell phone.
So, with the merger -- you know, T-Mobile was a low-priced carrier. It was also a company that had, you know, a good reputation with a lot of communities of color. It also had a business model that was really developed to reach this kind of lower-end group of folk. Whether their stores were placed in strip malls, or in smaller, set-aside places, or lower -- or, smaller communities, you know, folks could get to T-Mobile. They could their monthly price. And by having that affordable cell phone price, they could additionally add on the Internet access they needed. Now, it's not perfect. It's not the same as a home computer. But it became a really crucial fight for us, because we needed to keep an affordable option. And that wasn't going to be AT&T.
Chris: What is the assumption that would have happened if T-Mobile had merged with AT&T?
Amalia: Oh, it was really clear for us that if, you know -- that AT&T was trying to take out the top competitor. So, I think, AT&T was number one. And then, if they had merged with T-Mobile, it would have basically just left two carriers compet- -- you know, not even competing. Two carriers in the market. So, AT&T and Verizon. Which would have essentially been a monopoly -- no competition. So, in addition to the massive loss of jobs from all of these people working in the T-Mobile call centers and service centers across the country, you know, we knew that prices were going to go sky-high. And that the one form of access, or on-ramp, people had to the Internet was going to, you know, basically close up.
Chris: I think that it bears mentioning. It ties into community networks in ways that might not be incredibly obvious, to start. I was think about this recently, with the work that you're doing right now on the prison phone campaign, and thinking to myself, well, I don't know how much time I can put into this; it seems like it's sort of tangential. Why should I really care a lot about what it costs -- for the prison phone costs? And I think I'll let you explain more about the background of that in a second, so people aren't drawing a giant question mark. But you come to a realization that, for many people in this country that are marginalized, and the ones that we think community networks will be poised to best help, when they deal with telecommunications, it's on this basis. These are real problems for them. And so, I think it's important that we all devote time to this, even though I'm not ever going to be accessing the Internet only on my cell phone. And I'm probably not going to be making many calls to prisons, or getting calls from prisons. And so that's why I think it's really important. It really ties into the work that we do at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
So, can you now fill in the gaps of what campaign you're working on right now?
Amalia: You know, I think you create an important opportunity right in our space to just bring up the words that really do characterize most people's experience with telcos. Which is, you know, it's abusive. It's predatory. They are very strange creatures, that seem kind of all-powerful, and an essential part of your life. Yet you can't really wrap your arms around what they are and who they are.
Chris: Right. You know, actually, it's also just another word that comes to mind, and that's incompetent.
Chris: And I don't say that to be rude. I say that 'cause we just moved our offices. And the amount of time we wasted in trying to correct, I think, three errors that Comcast made along the way -- You need to have spare time. You need to be able to take time away from your job. You need to be able to just drop everything so you can try and get back on the phone with Comcast for a half hour to solve some sort of problem. And, again, I think it's really important to note that that's something that -- me working in an office, you know, it's a lot easier for me to deal with than it is for someone who's working in a lower-paying job where they have a lot less freedom.
Amalia: It's totally true. How we approach telecom is really based on, or starting with, people's lived experiences. Because I think -- you know, my experience and your experience -- it's certainly true even in my own family -- and my parents are both, you know, teachers -- my dad's a professor -- that if I just kind of, you know, come at my father with questions about, you know, symmetry, and jitter, and upload, and download, and symmetry -- and, I mean, he's just -- you know, his eyes are glazing over, and, you know, they're looking at me like I'm some strange creature from another world. But, you know, if you start, for example, with my mom and dad -- my mom, for example, just told me this week that she finally put a texting plan on her phone. You know, up until this point, she was, you know, really nickeling and diming out her texts, because she didn't really want to learn how to do it. And then she finally came to the realization that she wanted a text plan. Because it's the primary way she keeps in touch with her kids, and her grandchildren now. You know, that they want her to take a phone call, necessarily. No one listens to her voicemail. She leaves these long voicemails, and no one listens to them. We just see that she called, and that's the message. You know. And so, now she's kind of like, OK, texting is the way to go; I'm going to learn it.
But, you know, I think that particular example is what we try to do with MAG-Net. Start where people are at, with media and telecom. Unfortunately, for most people, it's exactly that. It's bewildering. They don't know where to go. It costs too much. They don't understand it. But when you start to walk people through, what are the things that really matter in your life? Where are the places where you would put some time and energy? You know, where you would accept the sort of uphill, or steep, learning curve on the front end, to be able to get some sort of real change in your life, you start to see people weigh in. And that's why, you know, we worked on the AT&T/T-Mobile merger. It's why we're working on the prison phone issue now.
So, you know, there's over two million people who are incarcerated in the United States. You know, out of sort of the quote-unquote "industrialized world," we have the largest incarceration rate. Nothing to be proud of.
Chris: Right. We actually have more people in jail than any other country. Just in terms of raw numbers. It's not even a matter of per capita. It's just -- it's an awesome number of people.
Amalia: It's an industry -- like anything else, right? Which is why you hear people talk about the Prison Industrialized Complex, or the Incarceration Nation. You know, its relationship to telecom, you know, is, again, in the same sort of vein. It's predatory. It's abusive. Folks who are incarcerated essentially have one of two options in terms of making phone calls. They can either make a phone call that's collect, that's accepted by their friend or family member or loved one on the other end, or they can use a debit card. And the debit card draws on money that they have in their account. You know, you're paid, what, twelve cents an hour to work when you're incarcerated, so we know that even if you have a debit card account, that money is coming from someone else. So, at the end of the day, you know, these calls -- and they're expensive calls -- are paid for by the friends and family. So the folks who are on the outside are the ones who are being punished with the high cost of calls. And I say high-cost, and people are, like, what does that mean? You know, it means that, you know, essentially, a fifteen-minute phone call, on the low end, costs $15. On the high end, it can cost $18.
So, you think about -- you know, you sort of tie the parallel to the AT&T/T-Mobile merger we were just talking about. You know, you look at T-Mobile. They have like a $40-a-month, all-inclusive plan; that's talking, texting, Internet. You know. But someone who is serving time, their family has to pay for that same amount -- that kind of $45 rate -- they're getting, you know, 45 minutes. A month. That's it. It's costing families hundreds and hundreds of dollars to make these calls. And, you know, behind it all are the corporations, who are making billions. Like, actually, $52 million, I think, is what it is a year.
Chris: And, actually, I think, you've said, some states benefit, as well, don't they? Some of the local -- not local, but some of the governments actually have income from these programs, don't then?
Amalia: Prisons enter into exclusive contracts with the phone companies. And, unlike any other contract, where a contract is provided and you look at the one that's like the most cost-beneficial, or the one that's the lowest, these contracts are actually awarded in the reverse. The contracts that the prisons make with the telcos are actually to the ones that turn in the highest bid. Because what is built into that bid is what we call a "commissioner kickback" that goes directly to that prison. Now, the prisons will tell you that they take that money and use if for all kinds of, you know, important programs, like education, you know, healthcare, you know, physical fitness, things like that. And -- you know, and that's one of the biggest kind of arguments against this campaign, is, why are you trying to cut down on those things? What we're trying to say is that we're not trying to cut down on those things. We think that any kind of self-improvement program is important. But it shouldn't be through the form of a regressive tax, that only the families of those who have incarcerated members are paying. You know, that's the real issue. ** in fact, recidivism ...
Chris: Um hum.
Amalia: ... reentry, rehabilitation is a national goal, which many people say it is, then it needs to be borne by the nation, not just by a certain segment of the population.
Chris: And one of the things that I found interesting was just the role that being able to be in regular contact with your family provides, in terms of rehabilitating someone who may have, you know, committed a number of crimes, or have some other problems that they're wrestling with. And so, to the extent that you make it harder for them to talk with their families, you're making it harder to come out of prison and, again, be productive members of society. Is that right?
Amalia: Yeah. The idea that, you know, communication is a human right is sort of a thread through ALL of our work. I mean, including your work, you know. And the Media Action Grassroots Network, you know. Sure, you know, it's more stark, I think, in the case of, you know, the prison phone call campaign. But I think it's true in all of the things that we've been working on -- muni broadband, you know; rural access; affordability -- that, time and time and time again -- I mean, the reason why people don't think Internet is a luxury, it's a necessity. The reason WHY people go to the extra effort to keep their cell phone on. The reason WHY people go to the extra effort to find, you know, ethnic press with stories that matter to them. You know, ALL of this rests against a backbone that's about communication -- that people want to be in contact with one another, they want to know more about themselves, their communities, the people they care about, and the issues that impact them.
Chris: And so, where would you direct people who want to learn more about the work that you do with CMJ and MAG-Net?
Amalia: So, if you want to learn more about the network itself -- like, where the different chapters are, how you can get involved, you can go to the MAG-Net website. It's M-A-G-dash-N-E-T dot org. There's a map there. You can click on your state. You can see who's active. You can see all the different actions we're doing. Center for Media Justice -- we have our own website. It's a very long URL -- centerformediajustice.org . And then, specific to this issue of prison phone campaigns, there is a website for that. And you can just do a Google search for -- I think it's phonejustice.org . That's what it is. phonejustice.org . And we'd encourage people to get involved in any of these areas.
Chris: I want to also just put in an extra plug for MAG-Net. Because we're a member. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we're strongly supportive. And I think one of the things that MAG-Net does that I really like is that they're regularly filing comments on sort of wonky dockets. And it's something that I'd like to be more involve in, and I don't have the time. And so, we're able to work with MAG-Net and sign on to comments, and to be -- to have a better voice in Washington DC. And so, I think, for others who are out there, like us, who are saying, you know, I live in Indiana, or I live in California, and I don't really know what's happening in DC, but I think my viewpoint matters, I think getting involved in an organization like MAG-Net can be very helpful to getting a real voice of people in DC.
Amalia: Oh, thank you. I definitely think we feel we think the same. You know, the reverse is true, is that it's new territory to learn. And we're all sort of learning it together. But it's kind of based on the idea that we all do better when we all do better. And I think -- you know, the Beltway is an interesting beast. And making sure, you know, the real public has a public voice is really important. So, organizations like yours and others across the country, you know, who don't have the luxury of sort of being in the Beltway and having that access, we're trying to make some space for them.
Chris: Thank you so much for coming on the show, Amalia.
Lisa: That was Christopher talking with Amalia Deloney from the Center for Media Justice. We encourage you to visit the campaign websites Amalia mentioned during the interview, and get involved in the issues that matter to you. The Media Action Grassroots Network, at mag-net.org ; centerformediajustice.org ; and phonejustice.org . You can sign up for regular updates specific to any of those projects, at each website. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org . Our handle on Twitter is @communitynets . This show was released on November 6th, 2012. Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is called, "Got My Modem Working."