FCC To Take A Closer Look At Racial Discrimination In Broadband Deployment

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

The regional monopolization of U.S. broadband comes with all manner of nasty side effects. The lack of competition at the heart of the country’s monopoly and duopoly problem contributed to high prices, comically bad customer service, slow speeds, spotty coverage, annoying fees, and even privacy and net neutrality violations (since there’s often no market penalty for bad behavior). But it also results in “redlining,” or when a regional monopoly simply refuses to upgrade minority neighborhoods because they deem it not profitable enough to serve.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance has done some interesting work on this front, showing how companies like AT&T, despite billions in subsidies and tax breaks, routinely just avoids upgrading minority and low income neighborhoods to fiber. Not only that, the group has long showed how users in those neighborhoods also struggle to have their existing (older and slower) services repaired.

Again, defenders of the status quo will insist that these neighborhoods don’t get upgraded because the return on investment (ROI) doesn’t make it worth it, and that’s a company’s, like AT&T, right. But that (usually intentionally) ignores the billions upon billions of dollars we’ve thrown at regional monopolies for fiber networks that, time and time again, are only half delivered. Companies like AT&T routinely get to have their cake (billions in subsidies, regulatory favors, and tax breaks) and eat it too (only half deliver the upgrades they’ve promised for literally 20 years).

It’s 2022 and the FCC has only just announced that it’s going to take a look at the problem. Prompted by language in the recently passed infrastructure bill, the FCC has announced it’s creating a task force to tackle “digital discrimination”:

“Specifically, the Commission must adopt final rules to facilitate equal access to broadband service that prevents digital discrimination and promotes equal access to robust broadband internet access service by prohibiting deployment discrimination based on the income, racial or ethnic composition, and other agency determined relevant factors of a community. Additionally, the cross-agency Task Force to Prevent Digital Discrimination will oversee the development of model policies and best practices states and local governments can adopt that ensure ISPs do not engage in digital discrimination.”

The problem, as usual, is that the real underlying disease here is regional monopolization. A company like AT&T not only faces little competitive pressure to expand service beyond the most profitable areas, it all but owns most state legislatures (and during Trump, federal regulators as well). As usual with broadband, if you don’t tackle the regional monopolization and the corruption that protects it, you don’t fix the real problem. And not only does the FCC (under both parties) not tackle this problem, you’d be hard pressed to find an FCC official capable of admitting the problem exists.

That’s not to say this initiative won’t do some good in terms of building awareness and creating some basic guidelines. But a program like this is only as good as its enforcement, and the idea some company like AT&T will face any serious penalties for 20 years of bad behavior on this front seems unlikely. The U.S. broadband monopoly problem has been obviously apparent for the last 20 years. 83 million currently live under a broadband monopoly, usually Comcast. You literally cannot find a single instance in the last five years where this problem was candidly acknowledged by regulators and lawmakers of either party, which kind of makes it hard to fix.

It’s somehow gotten even worse during the (often justified) policy freak out surrounding “big tech.” “Big telecom” has just almost completely fallen off the policy table, and even the idea of having some base levels of accountability for regional monopiles with 20 years of documented, anticompetitive behavior under their belts feels like a distant afterthought. You’ll know things have changed when you see an FCC official clearly capable of acknowledging telecom monopolization and corruption are bad things. Until then we seem stuck in the age of half measures and incomplete solutions.

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Comments on “FCC To Take A Closer Look At Racial Discrimination In Broadband Deployment”

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Annonymouse says:

Really the investigation should be taken out of the hands of the FCC and handed over to one of the agencies that can and will toss suits into concrete boxes in the middle of nowhere. May I suggest either Alaska or Siberia.

Take back the monies, licenses and however many billions in fines they throw at them.

Auction everything off again but blocking the incumbents due to being blacklisted for a decade or three.

If need be prosecute and incarcerate the officials facilitating their behavior.

I think I just described Judge Dredd but without all the gunfire.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

How about just a simple report about how many billions they’ve taken from USF and what we got in return.

The asking why we keep letting them have access to the USF when they refuse to use it for its intended purpose.

Then lets turn USF into a cable laying machine that has federal rights to use poles and easements without needing approval of the legacy corporations who actively undermine the goal of USF to connect all citizens while taking money claiming that this time they will connect people.

Sounds crazy but until we just cable the entire country we are held hostage to shareholder value, its america. We lay the cable then all of these legacy players can compete to get customers on the great american network… or I dunno help muni broadband become a thing and see how fast the cable can be paid for with a low addon price to bills (disclosed clearly above the fold) as people dump the shittiest providers the governments protected for to long.

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