Broadband Market Failure Keeps Forcing Americans To Build Their Own ISPs
from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
For decades now a growing number of US towns and cities have been forced into the broadband business thanks to US telecom market failure. Frustrated by high prices, lack of competition, spotty coverage, and terrible customer service, some 750 US towns and cities have explored some kind of community broadband option. And while the telecom industry routinely likes to insist these efforts always end in disaster, that’s never actually been true. While there certainly are bad business plans and bad leaders, studies routinely show that such services not only see the kind of customer satisfaction scores that are alien to large private ISPs, they frequently offer better service at lower, more transparent pricing than many private providers.
The latest case in point: Ars Technica profiles one Michigan resident who had to build his own ISP from scratch after “the market” couldn’t be bothered to service his address with anything even close to current generation broadband speeds:
“I had to start a telephone company to get [high-speed] Internet access at my house,” Mauch explained in a recent presentation about his new ISP that serves his own home in Scio Township, which is next to Ann Arbor, as well as a few dozen other homes in Washtenaw County.”
If you take a gander at a map, it’s not like we’re talking about the middle of the desert. It’s just one of a long line of communities that were deemed not profitable enough, quickly enough by major US ISPs. Granted the price tag of the endeavor was well out of range of most Americans, especially lower income Americans who were already stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide before COVID came to town:
“Mauch said he has spent about $145,000, of which $95,000 went to the contractor that installed most of the fiber conduits. The fiber lines are generally about six feet underground and in some cases 10 or 20 feet underground to avoid gas pipes and other obstacles.”
His plight is far from unique. US phone companies have effectively given up on fixed residential broadband to focus on wireless advertising, leaving companies like Comcast with a growing monopoly across countless US markets. Despite billions upon billions in subsidies, tax breaks, and dubious regulatory favors thrown at the nation’s telecom monopolies, an estimated 83 million Americans only have the choice of one provider, while 43 million have zero options. This is obvious market failure, yet there’s an entire cottage industry of industry allies whose entire function is to pretend that none of this is actually happening.
This obvious market failure, and our complete twenty-plus year failure to tackle it is bad enough (keep in mind Trump FCC and its associated industry BFFs can’t even admit the market isn’t competitive or that monopolization is a problem). But when desperate and angry communities decide to build their own networks, that’s when the fun really starts.
First, such efforts quickly run into lawsuits by ISPs that didn’t want to service these areas, but don’t want anybody else doing so either. Then, they face a wave of bullshit disinformation (extra heavy if there’s an ordinance being voted on), almost always covertly funded by industry, that tries to demonize these kinds of desperate efforts as socialism or even an affront to free speech. If that’s not enough, they’ll also run into bullshit protectionist laws, passed in more than 20 states and ghost written by industry lobbyists, that make these creative, local efforts as difficult as possible.
Community broadband isn’t some mystical panacea. But it’s absolutely a valid idea for communities that have been left behind for twenty years to improve their own infrastructure if that’s what the community wants. Better yet, such efforts almost always result in lazy monopolies trying a little bit harder than they usually would under the one/two punch of limited competition and feckless, chickenshit regulators. But instead of embracing these efforts, our industry-captured regulators have chosen to demonize communities as the US FCC pretends that blind taxpayer subsidization, mindless deregulation, and more mergers are somehow going to fix rampant monopolization.