5G Could Actually Make The 'Digital Divide' Worse
from the ill-communication dept
Since he’s taken office, FCC boss Ajit Pai has repeatedly proclaimed that one of his top priorities is closing the “digital divide,” or making it easier and less expensive for folks to gain access to internet connectivity. Unfortunately, most of his policies have had the exact opposite effect. From rubber stamping competition-eroding mergers to eliminating consumer protections governing broadband, the lion’s share of Pai’s agenda has focused on what telecom giants want — not necessarily what’s actually good for markets, consumers, or the country.
Enter 5G, which is routinely framed by both Pai and the wireless industry as some sort of near-mystical panacea. Do everything wireless carriers demand in terms of 5G subsidies, deregulation, and incentives, we’re told, and America will soon be awash in a new layer of inexpensive broadband connectivity and innovation.
The problem: 5G isn’t magic, and the technology won’t fix the rot that plagues the U.S. broadband sector. It won’t fix the fact we approve mergers that directly contribute to higher prices and weaker markets. It won’t fix the lack of competition in the fiber lines that feed cellular towers, which also contributes to higher rates. It also won’t fix the fact that FCC policy and telecom lobbying positions are virtually indistinguishable. And, contrary to carrier claims, you’re still going to have patchy availability as carriers focus on the most profitable areas despite countless billions in taxpayer subsidization.
5G’s technical accomplishments don’t mean all that much if the underlying structure is rotten, and US telecom is, if you haven’t spent time on the phone talking to telecom customer service lately, very rotten indeed.
And in some instances, 5G may actually make the digital divide worse. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance, for example, is correct to note that the low-income families we profess to love can’t afford new, far more expensive handsets or the even higher rates companies like Verizon intend to charge users to access these networks. Telecom giants (and the current FCC) do yeoman’s work focusing on unhelpful and silly “race” rhetoric, hoping to steer the conversation away from the subject that matters most to low-income families stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide — price:
Dana Floberg, a policy manager with the media and technology equity advocacy group Free Press, agreed, noting there is a narrative being sold to the public that the country is locked in a must-win, high-stakes race to deploy 5G faster than other countries such as China.
“Validity aside, that very notion only frames the issue as a technological challenge ? asking how fast can we build small-cell networks ? rather than an economic challenge. Ignoring the affordability component is likely to create all the same problems that have existed for years with other Internet services.
?5G is potentially an enormous technological innovation,? Floberg said, ?but it?s not that innovative when it comes to the economics of the service. It?s a step forward for technology, but it?s not necessarily a step forward for affordability of competition.”
If you stop and study Ajit Pai’s rhetoric (or any group or individual that mirrors or parrots the thinking of U.S. telecom mono/duopolies), you’ll notice he will go out of his way to avoid acknowledging high US telecom prices. That’s because that conversation leads to another conversation these folks really don’t want to have: the regulatory capture and lack of competition in U.S. broadband that’s causing the problem in the first place. If you don’t acknowledge there’s a problem, you’ll never have incentive or responsibility to fix it. Ingenious!