FCC Wants To Put WiFi On School Busses
from the something-is-better-than-nothing,-but... dept
The FCC has announced that it would be backing a plan to put WiFi on school busses in an attempt to bridge that pesky rascal ambiguously called the “digital divide.” According to the plan, the proposal would use the dwindling money available in the FCC’s E-Rate program to deploy hotspots on busses, allowing them to aid students and be used as portable hotspots on demand.
20-42 million Americans lack access to broadband. 83 million live under a monopoly. The end result of this market and policy failure was painfully clear during the home education and telecommuting boom during the COVID crisis. Our solutions to this problem often don’t involve fixing the cause (monopolization, corruption) but implementing a rotating array of somewhat helpful band-aids.
But even rudimentary, simple, common sense fixes often take decades to materialize in a system that largely panders to monopolies, not competition, innovation, or the public.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the nation’s libraries asked the Trump FCC if it would be ok to (1) leave their hotspots overnight to boost access, (2) use in-school hotspots to expand broadband beyond school grounds, and (3) utilize mobile hotspots to help provide on demand broadband access. You know, basically just do the bare minimum to help people struggling during COVID.
The Trump FCC said the first was fine, but effectively punted on the other requests, implying FCC rules wouldn’t allow it. This was an FCC that routinely broke the rules when trying to kill media consolidation or consumer protection rules, but balked at the request because it viewed community broadband efforts of any kind (including expanded library access) as a threat to monopoly hegemony.
The DNC, which is often notably better on telecom, is at least allowing these common sense solutions to move forward, based on a speech recently given by FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel. The speech goes to great lengths to outline the problems folks’ had trying to embrace home education with shitty, pricey, spotty broadband:
I took my on-the-road learnings back to the office and I combed through all the data I could find. I found that seven in 10 teachers were assigning homework that required internet access. But FCC data consistently demonstrated that one in three households do not have broadband at home. I started calling where those numbers overlap the Homework Gap because I felt that this portion of the digital divide really needed a phrase to describe it because it’s so important to fix.
Rosenworcel is 100% doing a good thing by working on revamping and expanding the E-Rate program to help people, something her predecessor Ajit Pai generally seemed disinterested in. But again, notice how this “digital divide” is framed as a nebulous, causation free problem, and not, say, the direct result on 30 years of government policy that coddled and protected regional telecom monopolies.
This government failure to specifically call out the cause of mediocre broadband generally gets passed along to the press. For example, Gizmodo isn’t an outlet that shies away from calling a duck a duck, but their article on the FCC plan mirrors the FCC framing. As in, it doesn’t specify why U.S. broadband sucks (again, lack of competition thanks to monopolies) and adopts ambiguous digital divide terminology:
Again, why does this “digital divide” exist? Why is it still “wide” after countless government initiatives and untold billions in tax breaks, regulatory favors, and subsidies thrown at industry?
Because telecom monopolies have waged a thirty-year campaign to crush any and all meaningful competition, often with the help of very corrupt state and federal lawmakers. This isn’t hyperbole, or opinion, it’s provable, documented fact. We throw billions in subsidies and tax breaks at these monopolists in exchange for half-built networks or nothing at all.
The solution to the “digital divide” involves aggressively disrupting monopoly dominance by any means necessary, including (as a majority of the public does) supporting community broadband, cooperatives, utility broadband, and various other ad-hoc, localized solutions (instead policymakers often demonize them). The solution also involves acknowledging corruption is a real thing that needs addressing.
It’s hard to fix this problem when your policy leaders, lawmakers, and press can’t even be bothered to mention that monopoly power is the primary cause of the problem they’re trying to fix. It’s also hard to do that when policymakers have failed for thirty years to accurately map the impact of this monopoly power and its impact on coverage and affordability — especially in marginalized communities.
That we can’t and won’t meaningfully address telecom monopolization is particularly weird given the recent obsession (by the Biden camp and the GOP alike) with “antirust reform.” But only, apparently, as it relates to “big tech.” The Biden executive order pays some passing lip service to broadband competition, but again the cause of this limited competition is left nebulous, unexplainable, and free of causation.
So again, putting Wi-Fi on school busses is great, sure. But it’s still representative of our tendency in telecom policy to treat symptoms instead of the disease. In large part because seriously challenging giant monopolies bone grafted to our intelligence gathering comes with a political cost most career-oriented DC regulators and lawmakers aren’t willing to pay.