America Needs To Stop Pretending The Broadband 'Digital Divide' Isn't The Direct Result Of Corruption
from the we-didn't-get-here-by-accident dept
Last week, a tweeted photo of two kids huddled on the ground outside of a Taco Bell — just to gain access to a reliable internet connection — made the rounds on social media. The two found themselves on the wrong side of the “digital divide,” forced to sit in the dirt just to get online, just 45 minutes from the immensely wealthy technology capital of the United States:
This is in Salinas, CA? just south of the Bay Area. Small children sitting outside a Taco Bell to be able to get WiFi so they can attend school. When we think about remote learning, we need to stop thinking of it through the lens of people with money and safe housing. pic.twitter.com/bLU1kIR9D7
— Stephanie Hurlburt (@sehurlburt) August 26, 2020
America’s broadband access and affordability issues have long been a problem. But they’re taking on greater urgency in the COVID-19 era, with millions of Americans being forced to learn, teach, work, and socialize from home. In that climate, it didn’t take long for the photo to garner attention and public sympathy, resulting in outlets like CNN reporting that the local school district wound up giving the family a mobile hotspot so they could actually do homework at home:
“The district gave the family a hotspot so the students could access classroom instructions from their home, according to Gebin…In a statement, a spokesperson for Taco Bell Corp. told CNN that “the photo of two young girls outside of a Salinas, CA Taco Bell is a tough reminder of basic inequalities facing our communities.”
While a kind gesture, the episode is fairly representative of our relationship to the digital divide and America’s patchy, expensive broadband networks. As in, we’ve let telecom giants dictate state and federal policy for 30 years, resulting in geographic monopolies where the primary objective is maintaining the status quo (high prices, little competition, zero real accountability for market failure). Then, in the rare instance where the problem can hold our attention for more than thirty seconds, we throw a band aid on the byproduct of this corruption and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.
Granted CNN, like so many major news outlets, covers this problem in a way that implies that expensive, mediocre, patchy broadband networks are just some thing that magically happened, and not the obvious byproduct of state and federal corruption. The kind of corruption that usually involves companies like AT&T burying competition crushing language in unrelated ordinances, literally writing state laws banning creative local community broadband alternatives, or convincing the FCC to effectively self-immolate upon request, gutting not only the agency’s authority over telecom, but most meaningful consumer protections.
American broadband doesn’t suck because America is big, or because we haven’t thrown enough money at the problem (giants like AT&T have received countless billions in tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory favors, usually in exchange for bupkis). American broadband sucks because giant monopolies literally write state and federal telecom law, and have completely corrupted the legislative process from the town level on up.
It takes thirty seconds watching state and federal legislatures before it becomes clear that the majority of our lawmakers have prioritized Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T campaign contributions above anything even vaguely resembling the public interest. It’s simply undeniable, and it should be the bedrock upon which all U.S. broadband policy conversations and news coverage is built upon. Fail to acknowledge this reality and you’re allowing the problem to perpetuate. There’s an entire cottage industry of telecom-linked think tankers, economists, and consultants whose mortgage payments depend on pretending American broadband isn’t a monopolized mess. It’s hard to look at coverage from the likes of CNN and not come away realizing how effective they’ve been at shaping the discourse.
Despite its reputation as a haven for “the socialisms,” California is certainly no exception to this corruption (just ask the EFF). Several recent legislative proposals have been pushed to help lessen the digital divide, including expanding fiber networks, funding “middle-mile” broadband projects, and boosting the standard speed of what’s considered broadband in California from a pathetic 6 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up — to 25 Mbps in both directions. But more than a few consumer advocates have been complaining to me that the broadband speed bill was never even allowed to come to a vote despite widespread support. Why? AT&T didn’t like it:
“Senate bill 1130, authored by senator Lena Gonzalez (D ? Los Angeles), would have raised the bar to symmetrical 25 Mbps down/25 Mbps up speeds. The California senate approved it in June, but it died in the assembly as democratic leaders refused to allow a full floor vote on it.
Had they done so, SB 1130 would have easily won the majority needed to pass. That wasn?t acceptable to assembly speaker Anthony Rendon (D- Los Angeles). Backed up by majority floor leader Ian Calderon (D- Los Angeles), Rendon pulled the bill, caving in to pressure ? and loads of money ? from AT&T and a solid line of cable companies, including Comcast and Charter Communications. Frontier Communications was against it too, but the relative pittance it directly puts in legislative pockets ? $61,000 over the years versus $7.4 million from AT&T alone ? doesn?t buy much influence. AT&T?s indirect payoffs to Californian democrats and republicans are more than five times that.”
This isn’t some one-off. Unless beneficial telecom legislation can somehow garner massive public attention (difficult to do since telecom wonkery doesn’t generate ad impressions), it’s trivially easy for a giant like AT&T to covertly kill pretty much any legislation that even remotely challenges the status quo, attempts something new, or opens the door to more serious competition. As such it’s not particularly surprising that AT&T-owned CNN examines the lack of broadband as a heart-warming fable — without explaining to its readers/viewers why U.S. broadband has been mired in mediocrity for the better part of a generation.
42 million Americans lack broadband, nearly double the FCC’s official, rose-colored-glasses estimates. Another 83 million or so live under a monopoly, ensuring they see terrible customer service, high prices, and little effort to seriously improve. Millions more live under duopolies where their only choice is either Comcast or a phone company that hasn’t updated its DSL lines since 2002. It’s the result of corruption. It’s the end result of a wholesale failure in ethical governance. Ignoring this reality, denying this reality, or painting this American failure as just quirky happenstance — ensures we’ll never set about truly fixing it.