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.