The Tech Policy Greenhouse is an online symposium where experts tackle the most difficult policy challenges facing innovation and technology today. These are problems that don't have easy solutions, where every decision involves tradeoffs and unintended consequences, so we've gathered a wide variety of voices to help dissect existing policy proposals and better inform new ones.

That's A Wrap: Techdirt Greenhouse, Broadband In The Covid Era

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

Over the last few months a wide variety of activists, experts, engineers, and academics provided their insights into broadband access (or a lack thereof) in the COVID era. We’d like to thank all of the participants for their insights during a difficult and complicated time, and hope readers gleaned something useful from the exercise. You can peruse all of the contributions here if you missed any of them during the busy holiday season.

Our first two Techdirt Greenhouse panels, focusing on content moderation and privacy, saw no shortage of elaborate solutions for extremely complicated subjects. While broadband access can certainly be complicated (especially when it comes to policy, legislation, and network management), in many ways it’s the simplest subject we’ve tackled so far.

42 million Americans still lack access to any broadband whatsoever, double official FCC estimates. Millions more can’t afford access (given US broadband pricing is some of the highest in the developed world). The primary reason why: 83 million Americans can only obtain broadband access through a single provider (aka a monopoly). Hand-in-hand with regulatory capture, the result has been decades of high prices, slow speeds, stifled competitive potential, and abysmal customer service.

The reason isn’t that complicated: We’ve let natural telecom monopolies dominate the market and (with the occasional exception) dictate state and federal policy. These politically-powerful monopolies have then cultivated an environment of apathy or outright denial. And instead of driving more, creative solutions to market, the US solution to this problem has (again with the occasional exception) been to downplay or deny there’s a problem, or to use flawed data and sloppy policy to throw millions in subsidies at giant companies for networks routinely left half deployed. Often with zero penalty.

The one-two punch of monopolized access and apathetic/corrupt regulators/lawmakers has calcified a problem that should have been solved a decade ago. That’s left a discordant chorus of folks, usually on the state or local level, scrambling to fix the problem using limited funds and bad data, usually without adequate federal support. All while being undermined at every step of the way by powerful entrenched monopolies whose top priority is to deny there’s a problem, unfairly demonize creative solutions to said nonexistent problem, and keep the broken status quo intact.

Peggy Schaffer, in charge of expanding broadband access in Maine, discussed how federal data is so lacking, states have been forced to crowdsource their own home-grown solution simply to identify US broadband gaps. As Pew’s Anna Read confirmed, there’s a lot the federal government can learn from watching state efforts to bridge this persistent digital divide.

For years the internet saw ample debates over whether broadband was a luxury or an essential utility; the latter generally opposed by industry because it creates greater urgency to actually address monopolization. With COVID making it clear broadband is essential for survival, opportunity, health care, education, and employment, experts like Consumer Reports’ Jonathan Schwantes argue that it’s time to treat broadband as the essential service it is.

Experts like Gigi Sohn say the federal response during the COVID era has been a profound disappointment. And, as Francella Ochillo and Andrea Kelemen noted, the most vulnerable among us are usually the first punished by our collective failure.

Fortunately, this is all fixable, and COVID could finally provide the impetus to break through decades of policy dysfunction.

Most of our experts agree the first step is better data and better maps to accurately identify the scope of the problem (Blair Levin), something we’ve only just begun with the recent passage of the DATA Act. From there, the solution involves supporting local, creative efforts to drive more competition to market, whether that comes in the form of innovative mesh networks (Terique Boyce), or local community broadband builds (Christopher Mitchell). It also involves giving regulators at the FCC the authority and resources to actually do their jobs (Dana Floberg), and applying antitrust enforcement consistently.

Again, the solutions are difficult but not impossible, though they all start with challenging entrenched, politically-powerful monopolies, which has never been America’s strong suit. But while COVID has taken much from us, our COVID-era educational failures (Brandon Forester, Deb Socia, and Geoff Millener) could finally provide the motivation we need to take America’s broadband affordability and availability problem seriously.

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