Infrastructure Bill Is Great For Broadband, But Still Ignores The Real Problem (Monopolies & Corruption)

from the half-the-battle dept

After months of intense wrangling, the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill has finally made it through Congress, delivering a massive injection of much-needed funds to an absurdly overlooked part of the economy. You might recall the broadband component of the bill saw its overall price tag cut from $100 billion to $65 billion. There were several other changes made at the request of the telecom lobby, such as a slower speed definition standard and the elimination of language to help community broadband. But it’s still the biggest U.S. broadband investment on record, and filled with a lot of great things.

The Benton Foundation has done a good job breaking down what the money in the bill actually does in a multi-piece series.

Most of the bill’s funds ($42 billion) will be used to create a State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program that involves grants to be doled out by the NTIA. Those grants will be used to shore up broadband gaps and fund digital divide initiatives. Additional funds will be used to deliver grants aimed at shoring up so-called “middle mile” networks (between the “last mile” to your home and your ISP). In most cases this money has to be spent in the next five years.

The bill also sets aside $14.2 billion to make the current Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program permanent. The current EBB doles out $50 per month ($75 per month for tribal areas) to ISPs, which in turn use that money to provide discounts to low-income households that qualify. The bill lowers that tally to $30 a month. $2.75 billion will be used for digital inclusion and equity projects like helping seniors get online, $4 billion will fund programs at both the NTIA and USDA aimed at shoring up tribal broadband access, and another $600 million will specifically go toward addressing rural broadband gaps.

To be very clear, these programs will do a hell of a lot of good shoring up U.S. broadband coverage gaps and improving affordability for millions of Americans. The bill does some other very good stuff, like revisiting mandatory transparency requirements for ISPs, requiring they disclose all hidden fees and line limitations at the point of sale.

The problem with these kinds of ideas has been implementation and follow up.

The U.S. has thrown billions of dollars at this problem, yet up to 42 million Americans still lack access to broadband, and another 83 million live under a broadband monopoly. The core reason for this problem is regional monopolization and the state and federal corruption that protects it. Throwing more money at the problem without seriously addressing the underlying rot means you’re not going to genuinely fix it. Many states in particular are just gobsmackingly corrupt, and the idea that this corruption won’t seep into these efforts at a large scale is fairly naive.

Again, good bills are only as useful as the follow up. For example, there were months of reports on how major ISPs were exploiting the EBB discount broadband to basically upsell subscribers to more expensive tiers. What was done about it? Nothing, really. For decades, state and federal regulators and lawmakers threw billions of dollars in subsidies, regulatory favors, and tax breaks at entrenched regional monopolies for job growth and broadband deployments that were either half-completed or never arrived. What was done about it? Absolutely nothing.

So yeah, stuff like the EBB is great, but it’s just a band aid on the real cause of the problem: regional monopoly power. And things like transparency requirements for ISPs are also great, but they’re only as useful as the FCC’s willingness to stand up to politically powerful companies like AT&T to enforce them, which historically has been… mixed at best.

U.S. broadband in 2021 isn’t spotty, expensive, or slow because of technical or financial obstacles. It’s spotty, expensive, and slow because the sector is dominated by a handful of powerful monopolies that don’t just dictate policy — they literally write the rules of the road. The end result is a broken, mindlessly consolidated market mired in regulatory capture. Everything, from net neutrality and privacy violations to crappy customer service and high prices, is a direct result of a conscious policy choice to pander to the biggest, wealthiest providers. Pointing this out in telecom policy is generally deemed hyperbolic or impolite.

So while there are a lot of very good things in these bills that should deliver concrete help to a lot of places, we still seem to be operating under the delusion that U.S. state and federal telecom oversight isn’t a corrupt mess. It won’t be particularly difficult for giants like AT&T to leverage their political power (which, in a long list of states, is near-absolute) to elbow out competitors, misdirect funds they don’t deserve, or otherwise hamstring anything that threatens their interests. Actually making sure these funds are spent correctly will require the kind of diligence and follow up that’s long been lacking.

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Comments on “Infrastructure Bill Is Great For Broadband, But Still Ignores The Real Problem (Monopolies & Corruption)”

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17 Comments
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Anonymous Coward says:

Making funding depending on providing connections to rural areas would be good but alot of the money will end up going to Comcast or Att and remember Biden struggled to get votes to pass the bill. Its simply a fact big telecom writes the rules and there’s no sign of that changing the best hope is making municipal broadband legal. In all states to provide competition to big telecom company’s
It’s amazing in 2021 millions of americans have no acess to broadband when most company’s allow work from home as an option

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The odds are certainly low as they have a vested interest in killing off the dreaded competition that muni broadband provides but they haven’t managed to kill it entirely yet, and if memory serves on a statewide or more local level they’ve lost multiple times as it turns out it’s somewhat more difficult(though not impossible) to fool a bunch of people with firsthand experience of what can be expected from the major telecom providers as opposed to simply buying a few politicians who don’t care so long as the cash keeps coming.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Yes, I Know I'm Commenting Anonymously says:

To: NTIA

Those grants will be used to shore up broadband gaps and fund digital divide initiatives.

Please, please, please NTIA, check the ISP’s own broadband availability maps and REFRAIN from giving out grants for those areas already served.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: To: NTIA

Alternatively as I’ve proposed before you don’t give them so much as a penny ahead of time, instead you bank that money and offer refunds that they can apply for after they’ve done the work such that if they don’t do the work they don’t get the money and there’s less of an ability for them to game the system.

ilgeo (profile) says:

FCC

Its humorous that the NTIA will be distributing the broadband grants (not the FCC), and the bill orders the FCC to report to Congress as to how it can better manage the USF program (which also of course distributes broadband funds). In other words, Congress has had enough of the FCC’s mismanagement of its broadband funding programs. Also, when are we going to see the new FCC broadband maps? The FCC was supposed to have the final regs issued in Sept 2020, with the final regs for the modification of the form 477 promulgated in March 2021.

That One Guy (profile) says:

'More exec bonuses, how kind of you.'

Unfortunately so long as regulators and legislators ignore the whole ‘rampant corruption in the industry’ tidbit attempts like this are likely to just funnel piles more money into the pockets of the same individuals and companies who caused the problem that this is supposed to help solve in the first place. If they haven’t bothered to do more than the bare minimum before with all the money that’s been thrown their way and there’s no penalty for continuing to do the same going forward then there’s no reason for them to do anything different this time around either.

The first step in actually addressing the problem has to be admitting it exists, so long as that isn’t done then it doesn’t really matter how many billions are thrown around the problem is likely to just fester and grow since it’ll just be a case of doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results.

Boulanger says:

The first rule of public policy: beware the unintended consequences. The BB grant program contains the profoundly undemocratic exemption from APA and with it, FOIA. We have been to this movie quite recently with the creation of FirstNet and the NPSBN also under NTIA, also exempt from APA. The resultant NPSBN is an unregulated monopoly masquerading as a PPP for one of the last bastions of public oversight – first responder communications. The APA exemption portends further degradation of the resiliency, broadly construed, for comms CII "supply chain."

Boulanger says:

Re: Re: Re:

Sorry, my bad. APA = Administrative Procedures Act; FOIA = Freedom of Information Act; NPSBN = Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network; FIrstNet = FirstResponder Network Authority; NTIA = National Telecommunications & Information Administration (in U.S. Dept of Commerce); CII = critical infrastructure; PPP = public private partnership.

My comment supports Bode’s contention that despite the good in the bill, no transparency, accountability or development of a public record will encourage the creation what FOIA scholars refer to as "secret law." More concentration of the already concentrated comms technology means less system resiliency. Thus, at the end of the day, there may be coverage ( by a single provider), but it won’t be reliable in times of emergency – natural or man-made.Sort of like winning an empty box.

Larry Pines says:

Broadband Bill Corruption

‘The corruption is in Congress’ is a bit simplistic. The corruption is in the PARTY (singular). A ‘party’ comprised of self-serving people who only CLAIM to be Republicans and Democrats while acting in unison to tailor the statutes and treaties to benefit themselves – in the grander scheme of things.

Some may claim they’re acting to the benefit of "The People" (Of, By and For the People) or "It’s for the children!" to justify their pilfering taxpayer funds. If THEY, themselves, are not going to benefit personally – it ain’t happening.

Building and servicing Optical Broadband data communication networks is a costly venture – best left to deep-pocketed companies while RF data networks can be (and ARE) deployed reasonably cheap – even by a loosely associated group of enthusiasts such as the members of iHub with their ‘Helium’ network of Hotspots.

However, only the threat of political suicide pressures local and state officials to acquiesce to the demands of monopoly builders knowing, or at least ASSUMING, their personal fortunes will be endangered if they don’t "go along to get along".

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