US Press Continues To Pretend The 'Digital Divide' Just Mysteriously Appeared One Day

from the can't-fix-what-you-don't-understand dept

So if you’ve read Techdirt for any amount of time, you should be pretty well clued in to the fact that US telecom is a heavily monopolized, feebly regulated mess. Regional cable giants like Comcast and Charter absolutely dominate the market, resulting in 83 million Americans being stuck under a monopoly (see this ILSR report). The result of regional monopolization and captured, feckless regulators is obvious and has been for a good thirty years: high prices, comically bad customer service, spotty coverage, and slow speeds. It’s not really a debate, though some telecom-allied policy folks like to pretend otherwise.

Yet every time broadband and the digital divide is trending in headlines, the cause of US broadband dysfunction simply isn’t mentioned. For example, as the Biden administration released its new broadband plan this week, numerous news outlets once again dipped their toe into trying to cover the digital divide. And time after time after time, news outlets explain that the digital divide exists, but they somehow never inform readers why. When the subject is covered it’s just some thing that appeared one day, like Godzilla out of the ocean.

Over at USA Today, for example, the problem was framed like this:

“About 30 million Americans do not have access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission. But another report puts that at about 42 million. And about 12 million students are impacted by the digital divide, according to a report from Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group and the Southern Education Foundation.”

Technically, the number of folks without access to any broadband is closer to 42 million, but whatever. But heavily monopolized broadband access isn’t just some thing that popped up one day. It’s the direct result of 40 straight years of US policy that prioritized the interests of entrenched giants like AT&T and Comcast at nearly every opportunity. But reading outlets like USA Today, a reader would never know that.

On any given day, go peruse the broadband related news feed and try to find an article that clearly shows readers that telecom monopolies and state and federal corruption are the primary cause of America’s mediocre showing in nearly every broadband metric that matters. You’ll be hard pressed to find any. Even when outlets like the New York Times publish good articles clearly demonstrating the real world impact of substandard broadband, the problem is presented as something completely detached from any real world causality:

“Longtime advocates of universal broadband say the plan, which requires congressional approval, may finally come close to fixing the digital divide, a stubborn problem first identified and named by regulators during the Clinton administration. The plight of unconnected students during the pandemic added urgency.”

Why does America have some of the most expensive broadband in the developed world? Why does the digital divide persist despite the fact we’ve thrown billions upon billions at the problem? Why do kids in the wealthiest country in the history of the planet have to huddle outside of Taco Bell to attend school during COVID? Why is the United States utterly mediocre in nearly every meaningful broadband metric that matters after decades of this shit? Hint: it’s not because the US is big or because stringing fiber is all that hard (though both do make fixing the problem moderately more difficult).

As somebody who’s covered the sector for twenty years, the answer is monopolization and corruption. Telecom monopolies literally ghost write terrible state and federal laws that hamstring competition. And because these already politically powerful giants are effectively tethered to our intelligence and first responder communities, they rarely see much in the way of genuine accountability. Again, this isn’t a debate or some errant opinion; there’s fifty years of concrete data that clearly make this point. Corruption and monopolization are the primary reasons US broadband is painfully mediocre.

This is a choice the US is making and has made for generations. The data are clear. But instead of working furiously to weaken the policy and political stranglehold of companies like Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and AT&T, the US “solution” has been to blindly rubber stamp competition and job eroding megamergers, throw unaccountable billions at monopolies (often in exchange for absolutely nothing), and effectively lobotomize the regulators in charge of making sure the telecom sector functions properly. All under some alt-reality claim this would “restore internet freedom.” It’s madness and idiocy.

You can’t fix a problem you’re incapable of even acknowledging. And it’s pretty clear most media outlets, stuck under a “both sides” or “view from nowhere” paradigm easily exploited by industry, lack the courage to call a duck a duck. And when the press can’t be bothered to frame the problem correctly with essential context, policymakers not only feel far less urgency to do much about it, but the public winds up usually blaming the wrong people. You’d like to think that the press figures this out someday, but it’s abundantly clear it’s not going to be anytime soon.

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Comments on “US Press Continues To Pretend The 'Digital Divide' Just Mysteriously Appeared One Day”

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49 Comments
Upstream (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There is some overlap, which would explain some of the media silence on this particular subject.

However, I think a better explanation that addresses most of the media’s silence on a broad range of government failures is that most of the the media are very statist. This is always the case in authoritarian societies. The media dare not poke the bear too much, lest the bear bite back.

The only hint of criticism of "government" that you see in any of the major media outlets is really just parroting the performative partisan jabs of the red and blue teams. The reds and blues must keep this up in order to maintain the facade of a two-party system, and the media are their PR partners in this charade.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"I have several channels of anti-Trump mainstream media news, and numerous social media websites"

I doubt it. You probably have a bunch of "mainstream" news outlets that depressingly failed to properly challenge Trump when it would have counted, and numerous social media sites that dared to ban the most obvious white supremacists while doing nothing to counted pro-Trump propaganda when it would have meant something for lives of his constituents.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"You probably have a bunch of "mainstream" news outlets that depressingly failed to properly challenge Trump when it would have counted…"

To be fair genuine journalism shouldn’t normally "challenge" so much as report on factual events, possibly backed by their own interpretation.

"Challenging" is what sites like Fox and Infowars do, when Tucker Carlson or Alex Jones spew a toxic mess of implications, mockery and outrage over the camera.

Or what parody comedians like Bill Maher, Trevor Noah and John Oliver do when they use comedy to challenge individuals and institutions.

Actual journalism isn’t that. Fact-finding and presentation doesn’t "challenge" except when the presentation of factual reality itself becomes the challenge. Which, admittedly, is rather often the case whenever a republican is the driving force behind an event reported on. ANY factual report on the latest CPAC will read like an outright smear campaign, because there just is no way to present the golden Trump statue, the SS Odal Rune-shaped stage or quote the speakers without the presented facts being something most sane people will find utterly horrible.

Upstream (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Once upon a time in the US one of the functions of journalism was to be a government watchdog, not so much "challenging" government wrongdoing as pointing it out, so that people could be well-informed and act on the basis of that information however they saw fit.

Today most of the larger journalism outlets are merely government lapdogs, leaving the watchdog function to much smaller outlets like Techdirt, Reason, ProPublica, The Intercept, and a host of others.

As long as the readership (viewership?) of these smaller watchdog outlets was fairly small, the government could simply ignore them. However, of late the number of these smaller outlets has grown rapidly, and their combined presence has been significantly amplified by the megaphone of social media, to the point where they can no longer be ignored.

Rather than try to crack down on the sources, (the many small investigative journalism outlets themselves, which would be a really bad look, and would be difficult, due to their growing numbers), the government has set it’s sights on censorship by way of the amplifiers, with both factions presenting the issue in ways that appeal to their respective bases. Hence we are seeing the horror of bipartisan support for things like eliminating Section 230, which could very effectively accomplish the same censorious goal in ways that we read about repeatedly right here on Techdirt.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

"However, of late the number of these smaller outlets has grown rapidly, and their combined presence has been significantly amplified by the megaphone of social media, to the point where they can no longer be ignored."

And no wonder. Tucker Carlson wins the "Most Punchable Face" award even before he opens his mouth. Most of the mainstream media is either unilaterally biased or – in the case of some liberal mainstream – is too busy scoring own goals to satisfy the overly woke crowd to pay attention to the parts of bigotry which kills people. Anyone trying to find out what is actually happening, what are the actual threats, what can and should we do right now…is going to be turning their back on these circus acts and clickbait peddlers.

That leaves minor outlets to present news with realistic conclusion and debate in their wake.

"Hence we are seeing the horror of bipartisan support for things like eliminating Section 230"

I wish I could disagree. But it’s true enough, the battle between democrats and republicans was never good vs evil. It was bad vs a lot worse.

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PaulT (profile) says:

"Longtime advocates of universal broadband say the plan… may finally come close to fixing the digital divide, a stubborn problem first identified and named by regulators during the Clinton administration"

There should be a big clue here to anyone paying attention. The problem was named by regulators before most people had access to broadband. Over 2 decades later, the hoped for solution to the problem is further broadband rollout.

So, something obviously went wrong during those 2 decades regarding how broadband was managed and regulated…

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Anonymous Coward says:

This is all an attempt to cover up the real monopolists–Google, Facebook, etc., and to make everyone forget that people of diminished means can’t get their conspiracy theories from Twitter, or their celebrity news from Facebook, or their retail search results from Google! THOSE are the companies that are causing the digital divide for their own profits! And it’s no surprise that when people talk about "Internet companies", those are the companies they mean.

Now, the telephone and cable companies, bless their hearts, end up taking the blame despite all their work to connect us to the Internet Companies. It’s not fair! It’s a conspiracy! Everybody in Congress agrees–from Pelosi to Blackburn, Trumpetistas and Sanders-fellow-travelers alike. And you are all in on it!

The solution is simple. Denounce Apple, Twitter, etc., for the threats to national security that they are. Then arrange for a forced corporate sale to some reputable, beneficient company with real tech experience–Comcast, Frontier, perhaps even AT&T. All digital divides disappear instantly. Employment in the tech field leaps exponentially. National Unity restored.

Why can’t everyone see this?

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

Re: Re:

Repeat after me:

The internet is not only facebook, google, and other social media sites.

Monopolies are defined by the fact you have no choice but to use their services.
When I deleted my facebook account, and decided to never log into it, and edit my networks settings so that any facebook integration simply will not work on my network back in 2018, no one came to my house and told me to undo it.

I don’t use google anymore either. DuckDuckGo and other search engines that don’t track what you do are freely available.

The easy way to explain the internet company problem is this:

You are going to a shopping mall. outside the door is a man, who doesn’t work for the mall. He tells you that he will open the door to the mall for you if you pay him, but depending on how much you pay, determines what stores you are allowed to go to.

If this happened in real life, you would look at this guy like he is crazy, but when Comcast, Charter, AT&T, Verizon, and other Internet Service Providers, do the same thing, everyone goes "OK!" and pays up.

Thats the difference. You CAN literally ignore Facebook, Google, and the rest, but you cannot access the internet without an ISP, which means that most are stuck with a maximum of two shitty, overpriced choices, and some have only one, or sometimes even no option to get broadband access from in the US, which screams very loudly how awesome and rich we are, while doing everything to remain mediocre and overly expensive in every way possible.

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MindParadox (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 12 year old account, less than two per year!

"Isn’t it amazing, er, "Hombie", that these old accounts pop out when comments are in single digits? To me, that’s SO convenient for TD and unlikely for a real person that it looks like astro-turfing."

Isn’t it amazing, you can actually google my user name and find out I’ve been using this exact same name all over the net for over 30 years?

Isn’t it amazing, that your ability to use critical thinking is so underdeveloped that the only reason for me to post you could come up with was "astro-turfing"? LOL

Ya made me laugh. Sadly, not with you.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 12 year old account, less than two per year!

"…that your ability to use critical thinking is so underdeveloped that the only reason for me to post you could come up with was "astro-turfing"?"

It’s Baghdad Bob’s convenient excuse to himself as to why so very many commenters are saying things he doesn’t like, or insist reality looks the way it does and not the way he wants it to look.

Someone been on a hiatus from online for a few years? It’s Mike Masnick or Tim Geigner astroturfing.
Someone who rarely comments who followed a cross-posted OP back to source on TD? It’s Mike Masnick or Tim Geigner.

The most amusing assertion Baghdad Bob made was when he tried to link these rare posters to Mike Masnick shilling on behalf of Google and the CIA, apparently for the "very important reason" of putting a single incoherent and unlikable troll in his place…

Congrats, MindParadox. You have now joined the select gathering of, by now, half the TD commenters pointed out by Baghdad Bob as being part of the exclusive shadow cabal there only to fuck up his "brilliant" rhetoric.

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MindParadox (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: 12 year old account, less than two per year!

Oh, and by the way, does my preference to not post a lot somehow cause what I say to be any less true?

Does it somehow cause me to be less worthy to post?

Or is it that you just want to gatekeep in anyway possible so that only you voice is heard at the expense of others?

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"… he lost control of his paranoia years ago because someone quoted Barack Obama at him."

Oh, Baghdad Bob lost his marbles earlier than that. We’re not sure if it started with his outrage over "evil pirates" stealing his mailing list, fucking up his brilliant plan of innovative entrepreneuring – e.g. fraud – or if he just cracked over Masnick describing him as a particularly dumbass sort of motherfucker way back in the dawn of time.

Either way he’s always been very consistent in never rooting a single post of his in factual reality.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 12 year old account, less than two per year!

""Look at this astro-turfing!" says the astro-turfer."

Yeah, that’s the next thing of note; On my years commenting and reading on both Techdirt and Torrentfreak there is only one person who has been caught multiple times trying to build himself a one-man army of sock puppets to have his own back with. Baghdad Bob, who currently keeps running around thinking everyone he meets is a sock puppet, because that’s the way HE operated.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Bill Clinton was president from Jan 20, 1993 to Jan 20 2001.

Google started in 1995 with an entirely different operation of "don’t be evil" and morphed into the giant it is today. Facebook started in 2004.

Your time lines are a good bit off considering the digital divide was identified before these companies were a force to be reckoned with.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Timelines do not matter, since the digital divide is people having access to decent internet. Since you need that access before Facebook and (mostly) Google can even consider getting involved in the connection, the only difference the timeline makes is whether the standard applied is dialup or broadband, and those don’t involve non-ISP “big tech”.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"I guess my problem is that I have too much faith in humanity; I believe for that alone That Anonymous Coward now views me with contempt."

Not just TAC, Sam. "Faith in Humanity"…That particular religion of yours is making even the pseudo-christian doom cults of the US look reasonable and grounded in comparison.

We truly do live in the most stupid of times, and at least 1 in 3 voters in the US alone have proven themselves so dim it probably dropped the average IQ of homo sapiens enough to risk dropping the latter part of that name.

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The Alert SP Oiler says:

been getting blocked with this little dig:

SPOILER: the GOOG gets to STEAL, MM gets to cheer theft!

Oracle promptly reacted to the ruling saying it means "the Google platform just got bigger and market power greater. The barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower." "They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can," Oracle said, according to Bloomberg News. "This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices."

I’m just surprised his piece [text, that is] isn’t up already.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: been getting blocked with this little dig:

"Oracle promptly reacted to the ruling…"

Let me get this straight, Baghdad Bob – the business entity which has for decades been the poster model of aggressive and unfair business practice online, sees fit to complain about a tangential competitor, and you hoist that assertion to the skies and claim it "proves" anything other than that Oracle is still in the business of wildly accusing everyone else over unfair business practice?

You might as well have shat on the floor, pointing to the heap and shouting "Behold! Evidence!".

Anonymous Coward says:

September 23, 2005

If we had to pick a day when the divide "mysteriously appeared", I’d say September 23, 2005. In June, the Supreme Court "didn’t answer the question of whether broadband should be classified as an information service or telecommunications service. It just upheld the FCC’s authority to define the classification of broadband. As a result, broadband remained a Title I service under the Communications Act and wasn’t subject to utility-style common carrier requirements." Then in September, "the FCC reclassified Internet access across the phone network, including DSL, as a Title I information service, relaxing the common carrier requirement."

They did that to be "fair" between cable and DSL. But it’s a mystery why they chose that instead of requiring the cable companies to open up their networks. Most other countries, wanting to be fair, have applied the telephone-network access requirements to cable companies—i.e., required that third-party ISPs be able to use either the DSL network or cable network for their subscriber connections. The court had said the FCC had the authority to go either way.

New Mexico Mark says:

Starlink - the great leveler?

I’m watching with interest to see how Starlink impacts these issues. Their initial focus is on people who have little or no connectivity, but as they ramp up both satellite numbers and bandwidth, they may find that their biggest customer base is disenfranchised US monopoly/duopoly victims.

Starlink is currently cleared to 30k satellites and (IIRC) provisionally cleared to 42k satellites. With low latency, high bandwidth, and near ubiquitous coverage, this has the potential to actually force competition again. I can practically hear the wheels spinning in the federal level lobbyist engines to “regulate” satellite internet “for the sake of our children… and cute little puppies, too.”

New Mexico Mark says:

Starlink - the great leveler?

I’m watching with interest to see how Starlink impacts these issues. Their initial focus is on people who have little or no connectivity, but as they ramp up both satellite numbers and bandwidth, they may find that their biggest customer base is disenfranchised US monopoly/duopoly victims.

Starlink is currently cleared to 30k satellites and (IIRC) provisionally cleared to 42k satellites. With low latency, high bandwidth, and near ubiquitous coverage, this has the potential to actually force competition again. I can practically hear the wheels spinning in the federal level lobbyist engines to “regulate” satellite internet “for the sake of our children… and cute little puppies, too.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Starlink - the great leveler?

We watched with some interest when Google thought it wanted to deploy fiber until their attention span lapsed too.

Yeah, but so what? It’s Google; we all know they have the attention span of a 6-year-old, which says nothing about Starlink. I expect that will be more limited by technological factors than Musk’s lack of interest. It just doesn’t have enough bandwidth for densely-populated areas.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Starlink - the great leveler?

"I’m watching with interest to see how Starlink impacts these issues."

Not at all. Starlink is an interesting project but from what we’ve seen lately, the scaling is horrible.
And there’s a lot of questions remaining regarding whether it can actually pay for itself sustainably. Much of it hangs on Elon being able to drop the costs of orbital launches to anywhere within the proper ballpark figures. And remaining in that business for long enough.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

'Nice ads we've been buying, shame if they went away...'

You can’t fix a problem you’re incapable of even acknowledging. And it’s pretty clear most media outlets, stuck under a "both sides" or "view from nowhere" paradigm easily exploited by industry, lack the courage to call a duck a duck

If party A does(or does not) do something and B is the result there is no ‘view from nowhere’ that would demand not pointing out who and what, no ‘both sides’ that would involve not reporting what happened, so I suspect instead outright corruption as the explanation here, likely in the form of it being made clear that if the papers have the utter audacity to point out that the problem is due to large companies the ads being paid for on the newspapers are likely to go elsewhere to more ‘friendly’ papers.

Ignorance would be one thing, if they simply didn’t know what the cause was, but this issue has been around long enough that if they’re still acting baffled as to what could have possibly caused tens of millions of americans to have substandard(if any) internet access it seems entirely fair and reasonable to assume that it’s deliberate and is in fact only an act, something which makes even more sense when you consider how quick those same newspapers have been to rip into social media companies, the same companies that the telecom ones who are getting a pass by newspapers have been going after.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: 'Nice ads we've been buying, shame if they went away...'

Yes, the problem with "both sides" reporting is that there are many occasions where there is no valid other side. In those cases, reporting in that way does nothing but amplify the nutty outsiders, or even allows people to get away with what should be clear criminal activity because you’re downplaying what happened in the interests of "balance".

If someone says or does something where there’s honest debate to be had on the issue, that’s great. If the fault or facts are clear, you actually do the public a disservice by pretending there’s another valid viewpoint.

"consider how quick those same newspapers have been to rip into social media companies, the same companies that the telecom ones who are getting a pass by newspapers have been going after"

What’s given me sad amusement in recent years is how "big tech" has been used to attack all sorts of companies, but they always leave out the telecoms giants – who are guilty of actions as bad or worse than those companies, often for way longer than those other companies have even existed. How are those companies not also "big tech", except for the need to pretend they aren’t in the same boat?

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