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New NTIA Broadband Map Exposes Expensive, Patchy US Broadband

from the deregulate-ALL-the-things! dept

We’ve noted for a very long time that despite a lot of lip service about broadband, the U.S. government still doesn’t have a very good idea of where broadband is or isn’t available. There’s a long line of reasons for this, including political pressure by regional monopolies that very much don’t want a lack of competition and high prices to be apparent (somebody might get the crazy idea to try and fix the problem!). The FCC has also long been criticized for methodology that declares a census block (which can be hundreds of square miles) “served” with broadband if just one home can theoretically get service from an ISP.

The problem is made fairly apparent if you spent a few minutes with the FCC’s $350 million broadband availability map, which just outright hallucinates available competitors and speeds, and can’t be bothered to include an essential metric: prices.

Telecom mono/duopolies like AT&T and Comcast want policymakers looking at the problem through rose-colored glasses. The illusion protects up a broken US telecom subsidization process that mindlessly throws money at them for projects that make no coherent sense or often don’t materialize. All propped up by zero accountability, and this belief that if you “deregulate” telecom, magic happens. But deregulating a broken captured industry dominated by natural monopolies doesn’t result in magic. It results in those dominant monopolies behaving worse than ever. There’s thirty years of evidence to that point.

It’s a very profitable mess that a select group of large companies work very, very hard to keep intact.

Enter the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which earlier this month put a stick in the front wheel of this dysfunction by releasing a new broadband map that tracks both median speeds and affordability, the latter being a subject big ISPs and captured regulators never want to talk about. The map integrates data from a wide variety of sources including Ookla, M-Lab, Microsoft, and the FCC. The red in the shot below represents places where the median broadband speeds fall below 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up (the FCC’s current definition of broadband). It’s not pretty:

There’s a button on the left of the NTIA’s map that lets you overlap lower income areas and see how ISPs like AT&T have routinely neglected marginalized communities, something also documented by several past reports. This is the net result of what countless billions in poorly managed subsidies and rampant, often mindless deregulation delivered. Basically, a US broadband market dominated by regional monopolies and overseen by captured, feckless regulators. The data is the data, and for decades those who’ve coddled entrenched monopolies have tried very, very hard to pretend that this problem doesn’t exist.

One amusing bit: if you zoom in and look at North Dakota, you’ll find that it breaks the national trend of substandard, sluggish broadband:

Why? Because a group of communities grew tired of the apathy of their regional monopolies and bought up their networks to form a massive, interconnected group of cooperatives. Like many community broadband networks, it was a project born out of frustration, resulting in fiber networks that deliver faster, cheaper speeds. Studies keep showing that locally-owned community projects like this routinely offer better, cheaper, faster service at more transparent price points. Such networks often tend to be more accountable because they’re owned and operated by people who live in those communities.

Yet instead of embracing these niche solutions as a creative way to drive an essential service to more people for less money, these projects are routinely demonized by those (like recent FCC boss Ajit Pai) who’d prefer broadband remain monopolized and expensive. There’s an entire cottage industry funded by the telecom sector singularly tasked with pretending that US broadband is perfectly healthy, and attacking absolutely any effort to do anything differently. And they’ve been dominating telecom policy for decades. It’s this monopolization and corruption that results in the “digital divide” still being a problem in 2021.

Community broadband isn’t some mystical panacea. Like any other business plan they’re dependent on the quality of the planning and people involved. But these networks do frequently drive better, cheaper broadband to underserved parts of the United States, and they repeatedly force apathetic regional monopolies to try a little harder. It doesn’t have to be an either/or equation. There’s room for various solutions and players, and numerous ways these home-grown efforts can be integrated into adult broadband policy (cooperatives, piggybacking on existing utilities, private/public partnerships).

But instead of doing that, we let entrenched monopolies write shitty state laws that ban such efforts entirely. We let captured regulators demonize an organic, grass roots response to market failure as “government run amok” or “socialism.” It’s a stupid, self-defeating mess we can fix with enough momentum, but only once people recognize that it’s happening. But when you read most major news reports and hear most politicians talk about “the digital divide,” regional monopolization (and the state and federal corruption that protects it) is bizarrely and routinely never even mentioned.

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Comments on “New NTIA Broadband Map Exposes Expensive, Patchy US Broadband”

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Adam (profile) says:

ND native perspective

Fun seeing North Dakota getting some notice for its decent internet.

For perspective I was born raised and live in North Dakota. I am currently a network admin and manage sites for a company that has locations in 16 different states. My company originally started in ND and has since expanded over the past 14 years.

I grew up where our local coop phone company made the announcement in the late 90s that it would stop installing copper and they would be upgrading everything to fiber and any new installations would be fiber. My parents live on a farm in one of the least populated areas of the US outside of a town with a population of 150 and they have a better fiber internet connection for less money that I can get any connection in many states across the 16 state region my company has locations.

I was used to internet being cheap, good, and quickly able to get installed and then when we started expanding and I had to start dealing with national providers I was completely shocked at how bad and expensive they were. And to be honest I seem to keep coming across new ways they are bad every month.

Now I’m getting long winded, but I will also say each time an article comes up about US ISP terribleness here I have always thought I should send a submission laying out how ND has been an outlier but I always seem to get busy so instead you can have this comment.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: ND native perspective

Im in South idaho, and its abit strange the things that are happening. We are now on sparklight, and then there are 2-3 Wireless companies.
$80-100 per month for 150mbps. And its not shown at that on the map.
We have 3 Old fiber lines going around this little town, near the freeway. And you would think the City would jump to use it.
Recently, insted of getting solid average connections to anywhere, Its almost random the connections Im getting.
They came to test my connection and had me run a prog that did a connection direct to THEIR servers, and its over 150mbps, but to the rest of the net, its anywhere from 18-120mbps. Even had hitches with YT playing shows.

Whats also funny, is when I get a trace route, Back to myself, its 1 of 3 connections. To this town or that town, in a 40 mile radius.
There are so many games being played its getting real bad. Playing some games I get pings from anywhere from 50-200.
I think I should go find other things to do and Just dump using the net. They DONT want to invest and upgrade much of anything. And the idea of running lines underground to Each town for a REAL HUB, seems abit alien to them.
Even with the idea that they could take over the Phone systems in the area(there are regs for that), They want to piggyback on the cable TV lines, only.

ladyattis (profile) says:

Rural North Dakota is no surprise

To me the fact that rural ND has fiber to the home in most cases is no surprise to me. In my home state of Kansas, I moved to the far northwest corner of the state into Norton county (and the city of the same name which was the county seat) they had the same kind of service but it wasn’t a cooperative. Still, it was really good for the price. 25/25Mbps for just around 35 bucks when I was there in 2013. It’s around 40 bucks now just from checking while skimming this article. It really shows that if you want something half decent then you have to build it yourself.

It’s unfortunate that urban and suburban infrastructure is tied up with all kinds of nonsensical regulations that prevent new comers to the ISP scene to expand out. Like the case of Google Fiber fighting over the Kentucky regulations on touch-make-ready regs which essentially meant that Google Fiber installers would be able to move around other ISPs cables while installing theirs which obviously AT&T and company were furious about since they wanted to control the rate of Google Fiber’s rollout. It obviously exhausted Google Fiber’s shareholders patience which I think why they pivoted to wireless like they did. In theory fiber internet is the superior product but dominant ISPs will do everything in their power to prevent anyone else from furnishing the product to others even if they leave entire sections of the urban infrastructure to rot.

Anonymous Coward says:

but what difference does i make? nothing is gonna change because the companies concerned have too many politicians and law service employees on their ‘payroll’ to become worse off and actually do what has been needed to be done for decades! the cost is extortionately high, the customer services are shit, the attitude towards customers is atrocious (and were it used towards any of the workers, let alone the management or upper echalon of those companies would facilitate in multiple law suits!) but getting any better service, any better treatment, any lowering of prices or any better coverage, there’s no chance! more luck finding a chicken with teeth!!

Bill Callahan (user link) says:

"Affordability" in new NTIA map

"Enter the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)… releasing a new broadband map that tracks both median speeds and affordability, the latter being a subject big ISPs and captured regulators never want to talk about." No. The NTIA’s map has no information about affordability. It has some basic Census info about home Internet connection percentages (not broadband — mobile and dial-up are included in these percentages), and lets the user overlay Census poverty data. You can see the strong relationship between poverty and non-connection in urban areas and draw your own conclusions about the reason. But "tracks affordability"? Not hardly.

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