U.S. Prepares To Spend $42 Billion On A Broadband Problem It Can't Accurately Measure

from the hey,-good-luck-with-that dept

As we’ve noted, the recent infrastructure bill will deliver a record $65 billion to be spent on improving lagging U.S. broadband access. Roughly $42 billion will be used specifically to expand broadband coverage, mostly via state grants doled out by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). By any measure this is a good thing, and the investment should result in significant improvements in patchy, expensive U.S. broadband access.

The problem, as the Washington Post discusses this week, is the U.S. still can’t seem to measure the scope of the problem it’s trying to fix. U.S. broadband maps have been notoriously terrible for decades, and the FCC has deemed a census block “served” with broadband if an ISP claims that just one home in that census block can receive coverage. The result: an inaccurate and rosy picture of both broadband availability and competition, something that has long served entrenched telecom monopolies invested in maintaining that profitable status quo.

After decades of this, it only began to change in just the last few years, thanks to state lawmakers eager to grab their slice of the subsidy pie. That resulted in the Broadband Data Act, which directed the FCC to not only fix its flawed methodology, but funded the agency so it can do more to hold ISPs accountable for false coverage claims, and utilize a more extensive array of crowdsourced data in determining which areas do or don’t have service.

The problem: most of those fixes are still several years away, and there are tens of billions of dollars that need to be spent now as part of a once in a lifetime opportunity to improve U.S. broadband. Not just the $42 billion from the infrastructure bill, but tens of billions more in subsidies that arrived as part of COVID relief and other efforts. As the Washington Post notes, it’s hard to fix a problem you haven’t measured, which has resulted in many states taking matters into their own hands:

“In the absence of new FCC data, many states have taken matters into their own hands. Tennessee, North Carolinaand others have started building their own maps as they tire of waiting for the federal government to produce its own, and as they develop strategies to deploy funds that became available for broadband deployment during the pandemic under the American Rescue Plan, a stimulus package passed in 2021.”

But these state mapping efforts are hugely inconsistent. Maine, for example, has done a good job developing crowdsourced mapping data through the state’s Connect Maine initiative. But for every state like Maine there are four states that have absolutely no idea what broadband reality looks like, in large part because their state legislatures and regulators are in the back pocket of regional monopolies like AT&T and Comcast.

Both companies have a long track record of fighting broadband mapping improvements (something the Post oddly doesn’t mention). In part because a more accurate look at U.S. broadband competition and coverage gaps would only drive policy efforts to actually do something about it. But also because these companies have spent the better part of a generation hoovering up billions in broadband subsidies for networks they then notoriously only half deliver. More accurate broadband mapping would make it far easier to identify areas and states where billions of dollars have been wasted, and you certainly wouldn’t want that.

There’s one quote in the piece that stands out, and it’s by Blair Levin, the architect of the Obama era broadband plan. I criticized that plan because like most U.S. government policies it failed to seriously tackle the real reasons U.S. broadband sucks: regional monopolization (lack of competition) and state and federal regulatory capture (corruption). As a result, it didn’t truly shift the Overton window. Levin seems to think this massive investment means the U.S. will have zero broadband gaps in 3-5 years:

“Blair Levin, the director of the National Broadband Plan under the Obama administration, said he?s optimistic that in three to five years there will be almost no locations in the United States lacking an adequate broadband option. But he says it?s unlikely that an investment of this magnitude in high-speed Internet will ever be made again.

?This has been called a ?once in a generation opportunity,?? Levin said. ?I disagree with that. This is a once opportunity.?

Depending how generously you define “broadband” and “adequate” (does that mean expensive, capped, and throttled satellite and wireless? sluggish, expensive DSL from a company that refuses or upgrade or repair it?) it’s certainly possible. But with nobody in DC (or the press for that matter) genuinely interested in tackling the real underlying cause of U.S. broadband dysfunction, there are just too many regions where powerful giants like AT&T are going to be able to inject themselves into the process, once again hoovering up money they don’t deserve for networks they don’t fully deliver. Probably without much penalty, if 30 years of U.S. history serves as a guide.

That’s not to be too pessimistic about the transformative potential of this investment, mind you. Even if we miss on half of the effort it’s still a record investment in U.S. middle mile and last mile broadband networks, and it’s going to be a huge net positive for a long line of U.S. communities. But as somebody who has covered this sector for the better part of an adult life, I’ll keep beating this drum until I see a genuine sea change: the real problem with U.S. broadband isn’t money or technology. The real problem is the powerful regional monopolies that work tirelessly to hamper real competition, and the countless state and federal regulators and lawmakers who coddle and protect them. Refuse to fix that, and you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

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Comments on “U.S. Prepares To Spend $42 Billion On A Broadband Problem It Can't Accurately Measure”

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Anonymous Coward says:

According to the Feds my parents old house had plenty of access, including to ATT. However, going to ATT’s website, and trying to sign up, was a different story.

Maybe, with billions in your budget, we could hire a company to literally go door-to-door and find out the truth. In the case of my parents, it’s not like there was more service the further you went from the population center.

Sharur says:

Re: Re:

Actually, we have a census department, that hires "seasonal"/temporary workers every decade for a massive (Constitutional) count.

I have an idea: minimize the massive hiring (and layoffs) and have a larger pool of "surveyors" who spend the intervening decade between censuses as running surveys of information and data the government should gather, for both their and our benefit.

The opinion of the populace on various issues, police use of force incidents, effects of various policies, access to quality internet, water and other infrustructure, etc.

anon says:

Re: att

Actually, at&t knows exeactly which pieces of property that they can serve (without any additional installation charges) because they know exactly where all of the fiber runs are. The problem your parents house has is that the FCC used to determine ‘coverage’ by census block, not by homes. This means that if a single property in your parents census block was serviced, then all of the properties were counted as having service, whether or not that was true.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re:

kinda trick.
The cables are easy to spot, and you CAN detect if there is a signal from inside a truck, with the equipment needed. Shoulnt be to expensive to hire persons Like google did, to scour the areas.

There is a problem. DEFINE broadband.
1 Cell tower in a 40 mile area, using wireless to SHOW they are covering an area, Is fairly cheap for the corps. And about 100-300mbps connections, on 4G. but how many people can that handle.
The expensive part is install at the home in those areas, with a receiver.
The GREAT part of that is cellphone coverage could be shared from house to house along WITH the internet.

The RURAL areas are the ones they dont want to do. There is no infrastructure to protect the lines, as there are in the Sewers of large cities. it would be Great to remove the old Poles, and dig a 3-4′ deep trench and install a 2-4" pipe to connect everything.

Anonymous Coward says:

"By any measure this is a good thing"

oh … how’bout the basic measure of fiscal sanity ?

the Federal Government is financially dead-broke and over 30 TRILLION Dollars in direct deep debt.
it don’t have $42 Billion to dump on expanding Broadband, or anybody’s other pet special interest project.

the constant outrageous Congressional spending is all being supported by phony digital-Dollars from the U.S. Federal Reserve central bank.
Result of this criminal "Inflation" (debasement) of the U.S. dollar currency is massive price increases in goods and services we all must buy.

there is no Free Lunch.
this $42B and the Trillions more of wasteful Federal spending will be paid by everybody through the stealthy theft of your money’s purchasing power by Inflation.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: "By any measure this is a good thing"

There is a different solution, but corps would get PISSY AS HELL..

Make a company to do the job, as was done before.
GET bids, like the old days, have the company Scan and find the faults, and a 2nd to follow up and check them.

Part of your problem seems that, you forgot all the money we had from the WAR(s).
It either goes back to tax payers, not you or I, OR they have to spend it on something to Justify why they need to KEEP IT.

Then we charge the Corps to use those lines, as WE ALREADY PAID THEM TWICE to do the job.

R.H. (profile) says:

Re: "By any measure this is a good thing"

You seem to be one of the (many) people who misunderstands how money works from the point of view of the issuer of said money. Every dollar that the US government issues is spent on something. That’s how new dollars enter circulation. Taxation, on the other hand, removes dollars from circulation effectively destroying them. If you have a perfectly balanced federal budget, then you’ve managed to remove exactly as many dollars as you added that year from circulation. Even worse, if you have a surplus then you’ve removed more dollars than you added that year! If you do either of those things and the population using the currency is still increasing then there are either no new dollars for any currency users (you, me, local/state governments, corporations, etc.) to keep or (in the case of a surplus) fewer dollars to go around than we started with. The federal deficit is the number of dollars that the government created that they haven’t removed from circulation. Those are the dollars that all of us currency users have in our pockets, bank accounts, and investments.

While inflation is a worry in the long term, as long as there are still sufficient goods and services for the number of extant dollars to chase, the economy won’t collapse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "By any measure this is a good thing"

Not quite. There are two distinct methods of issuing new money used by the US government.

In the first, which you discuss here, the government spends money, which is balanced against taxation to produce a deficit or surplus. However, under this method, the government doesn’t actually issue money, it issues debt. Since that debt itself qualifies as an investment on the balance sheet of the lender, goods and services must actually increase at a somewhat faster rate than the apparent number of extant dollars (as measured by the deficit), called the interest rate. Now in a healthy economy with a healthy deficit, this would occur more or less naturally, and no further monetary manipulations would be necessary.

However, in practice much of the deficit (at least in developed nations) is not spent on "value-added" products, and the result is a growth in goods and services which is slower than needed. Consequently, a second method of monetary manipulation is required. In this method, dollars are actually issued de novo, but are not actually used to make real purchases. Instead, the government issues regulations requiring "private" entities to hold certain government-backed assets (that is, assets not dependent on production of goods and services), and also to sell those assets back to the government. The government then creates money to buy said assets… with the knowledge that its own regulatory framework ensures that demand cannot fall in response to increased asset prices. This fixes problem #1, because the government can ensure interest rates remain lower than growth in real goods and services. However, it produces a new problem, in that this new money… isn’t tied to production of goods and services at all. Luckily (or unluckily), this new money was all funneled into the hands of organizations who don’t largely have demand for extra goods and services, and whose activities are already heavily regulated by the governmnet. As such, it becomes easy to incentivize that this money goes mostly to speculation on assets in the secondary market (which is also divorced in principle from production of goods and services), thus neatly sidestepping this problem, at the cost of general inflation of these markets.

This works… but introduces the general sociopolitical problem of "the government is deliberately and systemically increasing the wealth of certain favored groups, so fuck you, I’m going home." Unfortunately (being true), there is no easy solution to this problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

‘U.S. Prepares To Spend $42 Billion On A Broadband Problem It Can’t Accurately Measure’, wont be allowed to fix anyway because the telecoms companies wont allow them to be fixed but those same companies will be paid millions by the same corrupt politicians as always, make the exact same bullshit excuses and hold up any sort of progress possible! in other words, why not strip these companies of all rights, rip out the entire system and start again from scratch? it would probably be quicker, easier, cheaper and far more successful! jail the politicians who always screw things up, in return for ‘campaign contributions’ and get started!!

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