Report Highlights How U.S. Telcos Abandoned Rural American Broadband

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

So we’ve made it pretty clear for a long while that United States broadband ranges somewhere between mediocre and terrible thanks to the one-two punch of cash-compromised lawmakers/regulators and a lack of real broadband competition. We’ve also noted for a while how despite all the hype about limited gigabit broadband deployments and next-gen wireless (5G), the problem is actually getting worse in numerous markets.

In countless areas (usually the ones where poorer people live), incumbent telcos have effectively given up on broadband because it’s not profitable enough, quickly enough for Wall Street’s liking. As a result, telcos are refusing to upgrade aging DSL lines at any real scale, leaving cable with a bigger monopoly over broadband in countless markets country wide. That monopoly in turn lets cable broadband providers double down on all manner of bad behavior, be it comically bad customer service, privacy and net neutrality violations, or arbitrary and anti-competitive usage caps and overage fees.

A new report (pdf) by the Institute For Local Self-Reliance once again drives this point home, noting how the nation’s telcos have all but given up on broadband investment outside of semi-competitive markets, leaving vast swaths of territories with “broadband” that can’t even meet the FCC’s 25 Mbps down, 4 Mbps up definition. But because the country’s broadband maps are fundamentally terrible, telcos are routinely allowed to falsely over-state actual availability.

The report leans heavily on the form 477 data ISPs submit to the FCC. We’ve long noted how this data isn’t particularly accurate already, and ISP lobbyists have routinely fought efforts to improve broadband mapping. In large part because a more accurate picture of the market would make it harder for Comcast and friends to pretend U.S. broadband isn’t a broken market punctuated by regional monopolies with an active disdain for their user bases. As such, the group is quick to highlight how things are notably worse than the FCC’s data actually suggests:

“We have deep? hesitations about using this data because of its many inaccuracies,?but there is no other feasible option. In any event, this provides a? conservative baseline for the problems in the market – though we? believe the true level of competition is worse than this analysis?shows, neither is tolerable in a country that claims to support a? market-driven solution for supplying broadband Internet access.

?With modern technology, it should be trivial to develop a process that is easy for ISPs to use and less likely for monopoly ISPs to game but we have not found a single person with deep knowledge of the FCC that believes it will happen in the near future.”

One major problem the report explores is that because we lack a solid understanding of broadband availability, efforts to throw subsidies at the problem don’t usually work out that well. As we’ve seen countless times, incumbent ISPs are experts at taking broadband subsidies and tax cuts, and then failing to deliver, often with zero real repercussion. The problem is downright comical in more corrupt states like West Virginia, where taxpayer money is routinely funneled into ISP coffers without oversight, resulting in some pretty epic displays of graft and incompetence.

As a result, we’re throwing subsidies at a problem we don’t truly understand, with some fairly obvious results if you’re one of millions of consumers whose only broadband option is Comcast:

“The broadband market is broken. Comcast and Charter maintain a?monopoly over 68 million people. Some 48 million households (about?122 million people) subscribe to these cable companies, whereas the?four largest telecom companies combined have far fewer subscribers?? only 31.6 million households (about 80.3 million people). The big?telecom companies have largely abandoned rural america ? their?DSL networks overwhelmingly do not support broadband speeds ? despite years of federal subsidies and many state grant programs.”

In response, many towns and cities have eyed building their own broadband networks, but incumbent ISP lobbying plays a role here too, with more than 21 states having passed protectionist laws banning such efforts at ISP behest. Instead of fixing broadband mapping, policing fraud, embracing pro-competition policies and cracking down on ISPs that defraud taxpayers, the Ajit Pai FCC has instead decided to sweep the problem under the rug with clever math, then dismantle the consumer protections preventing monopoly abuse of uncompetitive markets (net neutrality).

The fight to actually foster something vaguely resembling competition in broadband has been raging for decades. Often because many have bought into the AT&T and Comcast fostered delusion that simply deregulating everything in telecom magically results in competition spring forth from the sidewalk. But mindless deregulation of U.S. broadband has, time and time again, only given natural monopolies free rein to double down on terrible behavior.

The report makes it clear that the real solution is complicated. It needs to include reform, public private partnerships in communities where ROI is low, the elimination of counter-productive protectionist state laws, and embracing efforts to accurately map where broadband is available and how much it costs. Only then can you actually craft useful policies that truly drive broadband competition and improve broadband coverage instead of paying empty lip service to the concept. As the Ajit Pai era once again illustrates, these are lessons Americans aggressively refuse to learn.

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Companies: at&t, comcast, verizon

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Comments on “Report Highlights How U.S. Telcos Abandoned Rural American Broadband”

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42 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: name some people we should vote FOR

No no no. Don’t sit idly waiting for the perfect candidate.

Aggressively vocalize that the incumbent doesn’t have your vote and why. Enough loud voices about an issue will attract candidates to take that into their platform. If they win, make sure they know they don’t have your vote unless they work on the issue.

Don’t let incumbents be comfortable.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: That solution is a non-starter.

Yes you can. I’ve switched political parties because of it. I’ve even voted outside the preferred party because somebody showed balanced ideas.

A desirable candidate for me is one that listens to their constituents different ideas and actually tries to present balanced projects and take careful approaches to any subject. As an example I like Wyden in the US or Sanders if you can’t get out of partisan politics. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t other good options within political ranks and outside them waiting for a chance.

ShadowNinja (profile) says:

Re: That solution is a non-starter.

And "elimination of counter-productive protectionist state laws" is never going to be agreed by the Dems.

Citation needed.

Anti-competition protectionist measures are not a part of the Democratic agenda, or actively demanded by their base.

Also, a majority of state legislatures are currently controlled by the GOP, especially in heavily rural states with the biggest ISP problem. Even the ultra-corrupt West Virginia cited in the story is currently controlled by the GOP

Will B. says:

Re: Re: Re: That solution is a non-starter.

“It’s difficult for the best of us to avoid partisan bias. The Ds are just as bad as the Rs, just in different ways.”

Oh, hey, horseshoe theory. Been a while since I’ve seen this one; having a POTUS like Trump tends to put lie to it.

So do you have a solution, or are ya just here to whine?

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: That solution is a non-starter.

Unfortunately, you’re right.

This won’t get solved until a fundamentally new way of delivering broadband becomes real.

I hoping for some combination of Google Loon/WiMax from autonomous drones/massive LEO satellite constellation (Starlink).

But it’ll be another 3 years, minimum.

Anonymous Coward says:

Deregulating doesn't work against state actors

Comcast works hand in hand with the government so is by definition a state actor. It uses its unofficial power to ignore laws and increase profit. It is our own fault for allowing it to happen, break it up physically and don’t let another rise in its place.

Ninja (profile) says:

“The report makes it clear that the real solution is complicated. It needs to include reform, public private partnerships in communities where ROI is low, the elimination of counter-productive protectionist state laws, and embracing efforts to accurately map where broadband is available and how much it costs.”

This. Splitting infra-structure providers and service providers worked wonders everywhere it was introduced but this alone wouldn’t help under-served areas. The public-private partnership is one solution. Another is to bundle the exploration of more profitable areas to less profitable one (worked here with phone and mobile voice calls for instance, sill struggling in the mobile data service). The regulation part is the least straight-forward and that’s why I focused here but there’s plenty of possibilities everywhere. If you take the lobby out.

2cupertino says:

Re: real solution ?

Hmmm:
the post’s opening paragraph here plainly states the core US broadband service problem is “… the one-two punch of cash-compromised lawmakers/regulators and a lack of real broadband competition”.
(that is … multitudes of corrupt government officials blocking normal market competition by official legal means)

But the grand closing argument/solution here is somehow to … “craft useful {government} policies that truly drive broadband competition and improve broadband coverage”. That’s really dumb & self-contradicting logic.

Just how are these decades worth of corrupt government officials … suddenly to become enlightened & honest — and magically “craft” wonderful new broadband regulatory policies ???

Try addressing the huge problem of government corruption, if sincerely interested in actual solutions to Broadband competition.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: real solution ?

If you recognize that “bad regulations” are part of the problem, then it seems to reason that “good regulations” would be part of the solution.
Massive reform of our political parties and government might be a laudable goal but it is hardly within the scope of this forum. (And is not a “simple fix.”)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 real solution ?

These are strong statements. Always can be proven false with a single counter-indicator. Same with "There is no upside."

Off the top of my head – false advertising is illegal. This is a government intervention into a market intended to ensure that companies and people do not lie to their customers.

Is this counter productive and harmful to the public?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 real solution ?

Either you are a troll or have never actually read any factual information on government regulation. In general, most government regulation is there to protect people and the country as a whole. They significantly help the public from predatory and dangerous companies.

Are the bad laws? Sure there always will be. Techdirt is filled with thousands of posts on dumb government actions. But this is not a zero sum game. The existence of some bad laws does not invalidate all laws.

Strong regulation with very sharp teeth is essential to actually having a fair market for broadband and cable.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 real solution ?

“government interventions into markets are always counterproductive and harmful to the general public.”
Do you just dump your used motor oil in the nearest river? you burn plastics and tires in your backyard? A few cities in the US in the 70s were starting to have pollution problems similar to China’s cities now. You think that is an upside? The EPA was founded to protect citizens and it is a major intervention into markets. Personally, I think the upside of generally having a longer lifespan far outweighs making a few extra dollars on my retirement portfolio. I don’t agree with everything the EPA does but I would much rather deal with some of the inconveniences then live in a place that requires face mask 24/7 and only a 40-50 year lifespan.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 if there are bad cancers there must be good cancers too ?

Yes there are benign tumors, as opposed to the malignant tumors which we call cancer.

Cancer is literally a deregulated group of cells growing with no regard to the harm that growth is causing to the surrounding cells.

One possible treatment being researched is to add back in those growth regulations so the cells act normally again.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 real solution ?

“if there are bad cancers there must be good cancers too ?”

Actually yes, there are benign types. A friend of mine has 2 in his brain and the doctors said that even though he’ll need constant monitoring, stripping them out is muck riskier than letting them sit there. But I digress.

“government interventions into markets are always counter productive and harmful to the general public. There is no upside.”

It is not. There’s PLENTY of examples all around the world where government intervention, when done properly, does wonders. Our fellow commenter PaulT could give you some insight into his example in the old continent as an example. Your argument is bullshit.

Ed (profile) says:

CenturyLink maintains 1.5Mbps/256Kbps DSL is the maximum speed one can get in rural south-central Virginia. Nothing higher is offered, and there is no alternative (except satellite, which is not a real alternative). CenturyLink has refused to upgrade the services there, even as the population has increased. There’s even a waiting list for POTS lines because the system is overburdened, but still a refusal to upgrade/expand by CenturyLink.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re:

We used to have CenturyStink where we lived before moving, and had 5M/512K. The house behind ours had 1.5M/256K and had been promised 5M was “just around the corner” for more than five years. So I guess we were “lucky” we got 5M before they stopped expanding. Where we are now we have Charter. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than DSL. Slow Windstream DSL is the other choice here… slow meaning UP TO 20M! But more likely 12M… and more probably 5M. So Charter it is. 🙁

ECA (profile) says:

Old trick

If you have watched over the years..Cable has Always Pushed to KEEP the sat system.
So they can Claim that they have competition..

There is a part of this you may not know..
Tara broadcasting has been around along time, and Most of those stations PAY to host different channels. The money they make is from adverts, based on companies IN THAT AREA..

CABLE was going to be Free or ALMOST free.. But the Big corps didnt want to give it away for free, they wanted PART of the pie.. And if you gave it free, and MORE channels, why not Charge allot for it. It might be better then LOCAL BASIC channels.. and all the LOCAL antenna/relays were paying anyway..

The interesting part of all this..is how CABLE gets Shows/channels from 1 place to another. AND 99% of it is with Sat. A different system then used for Direct to you Sat..
PS…you can connect to MOST of those Sat channels they use..EVEN pay for a few you want.. Hope you like a 6-10′ dish in your yard..

GUESS WHAT..
SAT internet is NOW happening…and its NOT CHEAP..or fast. Even the Cell system can give you a link to the NET…IF the corps would let you..

Anyone notice that the prices for WIRED PHONES SUCKS?? and most people would rather pay $35 per month for a cellphone?? and get all the long diatnace FREE..

tom (profile) says:

Just moved to rural OK. Got lucky and can get 12/1 DSL. The tech said the line tested to 25m but the fastest service they offer is 12. Oddly, this is twice the speed I got from AT&T in suburban OKC before they yanked out the POTS and replaced with fiber. The base speed after fiber was 50Mb down.

About 1.5 miles from the fiber ran up a state highway. Guessing that is where the magic DSL box is. There might be 10 houses between the highway and my place so unlikely to be cost effective to run the fiber down my road anytime soon.

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