No, Congress Can't Fix The Broken US Broadband Market In A Mad Dash During A Pandemic

from the round-and-round-we-go dept

COVID-19 has shone a very bright light on the importance of widely available, affordable broadband. Nearly 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband whatsoever–double FCC estimates. And millions more can’t afford service thanks to a lack of competition among very powerful, government pampered telecom monopolies.

As usual, with political pressure mounting to “do something,” DC’s solution is going to be to throw more money at the problem:

“The plan unveiled Thursday would inject $80 billion over five years into expansion of broadband infrastructure into neglected rural, suburban and urban areas, with an emphasis on communities with high levels of poverty. It includes measures to promote rapid building of internet systems, such as low-interest financing for infrastructure projects.”

To be clear, subsidies often do help shore up broadband availability at coverage. The problem is that the United States government, largely captured by telecom giants with a vested interest in protecting regional monopolies, utterly sucks at it.

Despite ample pretense to the contrary, nobody in the US government actually knows where broadband is currently available. Data supplied by ISPs has never been rigorously fact-checked by a government fearful of upsetting deep-pocketed campaign contributors (and valued NSA partners). As a result, our very expensive ($350 million at last count) FCC broadband coverage map creates a picture of availability and speed that’s complete fantasy. It’s theater designed to disguise the fact that US broadband is mediocre on every broadband metric that matters. Especially cost.

While there has been some effort to fix the mapping problem via recent legislation, the FCC still needs several years (and more money) to do so. And while you’d think this would be more obvious, you can’t fix a problem you can’t even effectively measure. There’s also not much indication that the $80 billion, while potentially well intentioned, would actually get where it needs to go. Especially right now, when federal oversight is effectively nonexistent.

You may or may not have noticed this, but US telecom is a corrupt, monopolized mess. Giants like AT&T and Comcast all but own state and federal legislatures and, in many instances, literally write the law. Feckless regulators bend over backward to avoid upsetting deep-pocketed campaign contributors. So when subsidies are doled out, they very often don’t end up where regulators and lawmakers intended. There’s an endless ocean of examples where these giants took billions in taxpayer subsidies to deploy fiber networks that are never fully delivered.

If you were to do meaningful audit (which we’ve never done because again we’re not willing to adequately track the problem or stand up to dominant incumbent corporations) you’d very likely find that American taxpayers already paid for fiber to every home several times over.

That’s not to say is that there aren’t things Congress could do to help the disconnected during COVID-19. Libraries for example have been begging the FCC for the ability to offer expanded WiFi hotspot access (via mobile school buses) to disconnected communities without running afoul of FCC ERate rules. But while the FCC said libraries can leave existing WiFi on without penalty, it has been mute about whether they can extend coverage outside of library property. Why? As a captured agency, the FCC doesn’t like anything that could potentially result in Comcast or AT&T making less money.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t subsidize broadband deployment once we get a handle on the mapping problem. But it’s a fantasy to think we’re going to immediately fix a 30 year old problem with an additional $80 billion in a mad dash during a pandemic. US broadband dysfunction was built up over decades. It’s the product of corruption and rot that COVID-19 is exposing at every level of the US government. The only way to fix it is to stand up to industry, initiate meaningful reform, adopt policies that drive competition to market, and jettison feckless lawmakers and regulators whose dominant motivation is in protecting AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Spectrum revenues.

Maybe the pandemic finally provides the incentive to actually do that, but until the US does, these subsidization efforts are largely theater.

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Comments on “No, Congress Can't Fix The Broken US Broadband Market In A Mad Dash During A Pandemic”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Koby (profile) says:

Money Flush

If throwing more money at a problem was a viable solution, the United States would lead the world in almost every imaginable way. Unfortunately, spending other people’s money is the only thing politicians can agree upon. They don’t have the guts to get to the real solution: end the telecom monopolies.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Money Flush

"They don’t have the guts to get to the real solution: end the telecom monopolies."

Hey, if it weren’t for those telco monopolies how would those politicians get elected? Have a heart. /s

The real issue is that when money is the deciding factor in who gets a real chance of holding office, you get the politicians who are naturally good at obtaining that money. Leading to the current situation where even the best possible candidate is heavily indebted to half a dozen vested interests.

Anonymous Coward says:

I see negative progress in this area.

The broadband coverage map has expanded according to everyone I have heard from and more people and areas are covered than ever before. There is 0 competition because it is all funded by the same government-noted entity.

On Covid19:
Magical "vaccines" are being "developed" when the issue doesn’t actually have a possible vaccine in a normal human body.

The stem cell and nerve repair trials are underfunded and not a serious solution to anyone alive today.

Anonymous Coward says:

Congress doesn’t want and had no intention of even trying to fix this massive problem! Too many members grt too much ‘assistance’ from the telecoms companies to actually do anything that eould even help the issue let alone fix it. Instead of creating competition by allowing more companies in this field and vities etc to indtall their own systems, at the slightest hint something like this might be on the cards, the major players get on their hotlines, demand the termination and throw bucks at their bought and paid for allies! End of ‘problems’

ECA (profile) says:

The only problem

with the GOV. doing anything, tends to be Who they get to do it.
It COSTS MORE then it should, How much was hat Gov. net site? Installed in 7 days.
A Paid off corps jumps in saying they can do it, and we get Internet sites that can be hacked by a 12 year old.
Politicians that have NO idea of quality controls and testing, as the Democrat convention Shows.
A subsidiary of the Corp that they are trying to FIX, Gets the Bid and does nothing, and hands the money to the Org corp..then goes bust/runs away.

And they never ASK the 1 million People out here that CAN/COULD/WOULD do the job for the Gov. that would be paid a fair wage and it would create jobs..

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Koby (profile) says:

Re: The only problem

A subsidiary of the Corp that they are trying to FIX, Gets the Bid and does nothing, and hands the money to the Org corp..then goes bust/runs away.

I hear that other countries have a solution for this, such as Germany with roadway construction: the contractor puts up a bond. If the job is completed correctly and the road holds up for 30 years as agreed, then the bond pays out. But if it isn’t done correctly, then the cost to fix the mistake comes out of the bond. You can run away from the problem, but then you leave your money behind.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: The only problem

Plenty of other countries have solutions which work, both when it comes to fixing core infrastructure and regulating it so it’s opened for genuine competition.

However, mention any of those solutions which have been tried and true for fifty-odd years elsewhere in first-world countries with healthy market economies and the current crop of US politicians immediately holler "socialism!"

First, fix the electoral process which caters shamelessly to whichever candidate gets the most money out of private interests. THEN you have a hope of fixing the rest of what is broken by design.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The only problem

lets go with that and add…

Some of this started years ago, with the reps/demo backing Idiots into offices in the state and county levels. Then bring them up.
We really didnt get the idea that most of these persons were Not from the area, state, county we live in.
And a good share of them are just stupid and have little to no life experience, except 1 time per 4-6 years to get back into office. AND do as the rep/demo group says for them to do.

Our gov. didnt even know what Hemp oil was, and he is older then I am, in his 80’s. He has to ask his handlers what to do. And 90% of the time he is isolated and really, never has a life outside of office.
Now they have to compete with the info on the internet, and a Wider spread of information and BS opinions.
Do you Think we will now get people Smarter then we are?? NOT A CHANCE.

I want a button in elections for NONE OF THE ABOVE.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re:

intercontinental rail
Freeway system
Phone system, as the corps are only responsible for the LAst mile(towns and cities)
Schools, before idiots got ahold of it.
deciding NOT to back the Corps during the Union wars, in the early 1900’s.
Internet, beginning, middle and end..not the end as the corps are responsible for that.
Keeping SOME major corps alive, when they were failing, because of JOBS.. but not NOW, as state cut taxes, fed cuts taxes and no one can find the money.

the Fed has done allot, that you may not know about, which includes a backup system to retirement THAT corps are supposed to pay…AND IS HARDLY ENFORCED, because the corps had the agency CUT..

WE dont have representation, anymore, and since about 40 years ago, when Corp stooges started taking over.

Anonymous Coward says:

"Feckless regulators"

Progrssives are constantly frustrated by the routine failures of their government-regulatory-model.
They instantly reject any suggestion that their regulatory poliitical ideology could be flawed.

Congress, FCC, and general government have been around a very lonnnng time, yet this particular problem is an ever bigger mess.

Ideology blinds the political activists.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
R.H. (profile) says:

Re: "Feckless regulators"

Do you believe that the situation would be better without any regulation? Regardless of how bad they are at dealing with this, without the fear of the FCC showing up at their doors, I know quite a few people who would be having a field day drowning out everyone’s cellular calls with HAM equipment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "Feckless regulators"

"Progrssives are constantly frustrated by the routine failures of their government-regulatory-model.
They instantly reject any suggestion that their regulatory poliitical ideology could be flawed.."

Failure of the regulation is not necessarily the fault of same as there are many ways for the nefarious to sabotage government operations in their ill fated attempt to destroy the regulatory mechanisms.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: "Feckless regulators"

Dear AC..
you should always look at your opinion from the Other side. so that you can explain Why you said what you say.
99% of regulations are created After the fact.
Which regulation are you talking about.
Most of hte recent ones killed by the reps, tend to be consumer protections, and Union based.
Think about that. THERE ARE reasons why unions came around…and ask any McD worker about it.
As to consumer protections…ISNT is nice that CORPS are required to clean UP the mess they create??
How about that when you BUY something, you have every right to Fix/modify/change it to meet your needs?

PICK a regulation please….Any of them…and NOT THE STATE ones…

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Someone , fcc, politics people , someone, needs to get FTTH fiber broadband expanded and get rid of awful cable broadband. Too many folks suffer from awful constant outages , only 1 provider , cable broadband.

While I agree we should be working towards more fiber service, cable broadband is not the problem. When done well, it can provide well over 100 Mbps with decent latency. The problem is we don’t have circumstances that ensure that it will be done well.

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