As U.S. Prepares Big New Broadband Plan, Few Notice Our Last Major Broadband Plan Was A Major Dud

from the doomed-to-repeat-it dept

“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” isn’t just a quaint saying. Especially in tech or telecom policy. If you don’t learn from the mistakes you made the last time you tried to tackle a complex policy issue, you’re just going to repeat some or all of the process and see similar results. But it often seems as if the United States has a severe allergy to learning from history and experience, especially if it’s in certain companies’ best interests that we not learn from our past policy failures (see: banking, airlines, insurance, energy, health care, pharma…).

Our inability to learn from past mistakes is particularly pronounced in telecom where we just keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Back in 2010 the Obama FCC released a massive, heavily-hyped “National Broadband Plan.” The goal of this plan was to bring broadband to everyone who needed it, driving innovation and bolstering the entirety of the internet economy. As we noted at the time, the plan wasn’t likely to see much success because it failed to identify and target the real cause of U.S. broadband dysfunction: limited broadband competition (monopolies), and the state and federal corruption that protects monopolies.

Eleven years later, as we gear up for yet another massive broadband investment and plan, few folks in telecom policy have bothered to look backward to help us look forward. Except perhaps Christopher Terry, Assistant Professor of Media Law and Ethics at the University of Minnesota. He’s made a bit of a habit of popping up to remind policymakers that their massive 2010 broadband “fix” wasn’t much of one. And he often doesn’t get the attention he deserves:

Terry often writes about how the plan failed to deliver pretty much everything it promised, and very few folks in telecom policy circles seem particularly bothered by that fact. U.S. telecom policymakers just keep trudging forward, as if we hadn’t already promised to fix this problem several times over, despite the fact none of the 2010 plan’s primary goals were actually met:

  • Goal No. 1: At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second. (Nope)
  • Goal No. 2: The United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation. (not even close).
  • Goal No. 3: Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose. (the pandemic brutally showcased how this absolutely isn’t true. In fact, Techdirt ran an entire conference on the subject)
  • Goal No. 4: Every American community should have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals, and government buildings. (again, COVID showed how far we actually were from this goal)
  • Goal No. 5: To ensure the safety of the American people, every first responder should have access to a nationwide, wireless, interoperable broadband public safety network. (We did finally start building FirstNet, though it’s incomplete and been plagued by delays. Also, remember when Verizon Wireless throttled those California firefighters as they were battling record wildfires and tried to upsell them to more expensive plans?)
  • Goal No. 6: To ensure that America leads in the clean energy economy, every American should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption. (never happened at any consistent scale).
  • We’re now poised to spend another $42 billion on broadband despite not having accurately fixed our inaccurate broadband maps. The FCC also just announced another $1 billion investment into rural broadband, without acknowledging this was a problem that was supposed to be fixed years ago. As Terry noted in an email, these projects and their crafters may be well intentioned, but they often weirdly ignore that all of this was supposed to have been fixed years ago:

    “Of course, if the 10 year plan in the Broadband Plan had worked as designed, none of this spending would have been necessary, as these shortcomings would have been resolved. There were six stated goals in the national broadband plan. It is arguable none of these goals have been met, 4300 days after the plan was launched. I pointed this out 800 days ago in a Benton foundation op-ed. The failure of the National Broadband Plan is more than a digital divide issue, the plan included provisions for a consumer centric digital privacy mechanism that were discarded with the rest of the plan.

    To be clear, our new $42 billion broadband plan absolutely will be helpful in driving needed broadband funds to a lot of areas. But it’s fairly clear it was crafted without truly reckoning with the failures of past policies. And it once again doesn’t target the real cause of spotty, shitty U.S. broadband: monopolization and corruption. The latter (corruption) is a Sisyphean task to be sure. But tackling U.S. competition shouldn’t be this hard. Hundreds of towns, cities, co-ops, and utilities are doing it every day, though lending them a hand was one of the first lobbying casualties in the broadband infrastructure bill (again, corruption).

    If U.S. policymakers really want to fix U.S. broadband, it starts with clearly acknowledging and calling out regional monopolization (something neither party has much interest in doing for fear of upsetting politically powerful campaign contributors tethered to our intelligence gathering). It involves shaking off lobbying influence, and ending the 30 year tendency of letting monopolistic giants like AT&T and Comcast literally write state and federal telecom policy. And it most certainly involves actually acknowledging the failures of the past so we don’t doom ourselves to repeating them in perpetuity.

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    Comments on “As U.S. Prepares Big New Broadband Plan, Few Notice Our Last Major Broadband Plan Was A Major Dud”

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    16 Comments
    This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
    That One Guy (profile) says:

    To solve a problem first you need to admit it exists

    Unfortunately actually addressing the problem(and namely why it’s still a problem) would involve making some very heavy political donors very unhappy as step one would require admitting that maybe it’s not in the public’s best interest for the current major ISPs to have near if not actual monopoly positions in the various markets they are dominating, with step two funding or even just allowing alternatives to provide some much needed competition rather.

    Politically it makes far more sense to keep that willful ignorance alive(and the political donations that stem from it) and stick to the position that the real issue is that not enough money has been thrown at problem, which is likely what that’s exactly what keeps happening.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: To solve a problem first you need to admit it exists

    i would say the first step in fixing the problem is to get rid of the political patronage and short appointments of the heads of regulatory agencies. Without that change what one party achieves can be undone by the other a few years latter. If the telco’s don’t like a new policy, they can drag out implementation until a change of administration gets it removed and they can continue as they were..

    Anonymous Coward says:

    Re: Feds as Santa Claus

    the Feds as Santa Claus

    the PROBLEM is that you guys see the federal government as Santa Claus, with endless Billion$ to throw at endless giveaway spending programs

    first off, the Feds are broke and don’t have the real money for any of this — counterfeit $$ are the only source of funding for these boondoggles
    there will be SEVERE national economic consequences for all this federal funny money constantly dumped into the America economy — you guys have no clue how inflation happens or how it eventually destroys you and everybody else

    second, the Feds and FCC are proven failures at meeting the stated broadband goals
    trusting them do better this time is a prime example of
    " we just keep making the same mistakes over and over again"

    third, BroadBand for All ain’t a necessity — it’s merely an arbitrary WANT by some political special interest groups
    and it’s in no way a constitutional function of the Federal government (not that you guys care in the slightest about that stuff)

    This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

    Koby (profile) says:

    Drunken Sailors

    The politicians have identified that they want to spend a lot of money in the hopes that it will boost their poll numbers, and they can identify what they hope it will accomplish, but they can’t tell us how the spent money will actually get us toward those goals. Expect the money to be flushed down the toilet on some useless bureaucrat salaries while close to zero homes or businesses receive broadband connectivity.

    Bilvin Spicklittle says:

    How could the National Broadband Plan have been anything but a dud? It started out with the wrong premise:

    The goal of this plan was to bring broadband to everyone who needed it,

    That’s dumb as fuck. Everyone needs broadband. Everyone. Without exception. There is no one not needing it. Network infrastructure is, among other things, even how some large fraction of people get 911 service. Old 99yr grandmas in nursing homes need it. Babies in cribs need it. People in cities, people out in the sticks. Everyone.

    If you add "to people who need it", then you don’t even understand the problem. It’s not even people. It’s geography. If someone has a chickenshack out on the back 40 acres of their property, that needs a fiber hookup. Restrooms at national parks need fiber hookups. You should have to venture into absolute wilderness to be farther than a few dozen yards from this stuff.

    PaulT (profile) says:

    Re: Re:

    "That’s dumb as fuck. Everyone needs broadband. Everyone"

    Needs differ, and the pandemic has exposed how different those needs can be The ideal is for everyone to have it, of course, but your babies in cribs and grandmas who rarely use it are obviously going to be outweighed by the people who can’t work or study without it – or who are placed at a major disadvantage in society by not having the access to do so..

    "It’s not even people. It’s geography."

    Which would be a good point if it were only people in the sticks who didn’t have it. Since it’s possible to live in a major city or other populated are and still not have it, there must be other problems to be addressed.

    "Restrooms at national parks need fiber hookups"

    I’ll take a wild swing and suggest that when you’re prioritising needs, the ability to watch TikTok while taking a dump is not the issue that they’re trying to address here.

    That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

    If only people would vote for officials based not on the soundbite but how it actually worked out for us.

    But the nation is so polarized that people are willing to risk the lives of themselves, friends, family, strangers to stick it to the libs because someone who is fully vaccinated tells them how the vaccine is dangerous.

    They spend 70% of their time fundraising to stay in office, imagine if they learned to fear the voters again and put 70% of their effort into actually running the country for us instead of corporate sponsors.

    Anonymous Coward says:

    there can be as many plans as you like, they will never work! not while there are politicians who are in the pockets of the providing companies, not while those companies are able to get away with skimming $millions out of the schemes but giving nothing back and not while the services provided even now are so piss poor that even 3rd world countries have better than us!!

    Boulanger says:

    Re: Goal #5, "we did finally start building FirstNet…" where "building" can be misleading. It is an existing commercial wireless network with an unverifiable number of Band 14 radios because it is an unregulated monopoly, operating under a secret contract, masquerading as a public private partnership and is exempt from any public accountability.

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