It Shouldn't Have Taken A Pandemic To Make Us Care About Crappy U.S. Broadband

from the ill-communication dept

For years politicians have paid empty lip service about the "digital divide," or the essential lack of broadband access and affordability. Yet for decades the problem just kept getting kicked down the road. Why? Because U.S. regulators and lawmakers lacked the courage to tackle the biggest problem: a lack of broadband competition due to monopolization of the market. Nor were they willing to stand up to the politically powerful companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon which fight tooth and nail against any meaningful disruption of this broken status quo.

As a result, Americans have paid some of the highest prices in the world for broadband service that's not only spottily available, but routinely ranks as mediocre across a wide variety of metrics. From telecom linked think tankers and hired economists to consultants and lobbyists, there's an entire secondary industry dedicated to pretending this problem is either overblown, or doesn't exist at all.

Needless to say, it shouldn't have taken a pandemic to expose the superficiality of such claims, or the fact that US telecom issues deserved more attention. With millions of Americans hunkered down at home, a brighter light than ever is being shined on the fact that 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband whatsoever (twice what the FCC claims). Millions more can't afford service because we've allowed an essential utility to be monopolized.

Anybody claiming that any of this is a surprise should be rightfully laughed at:

"...we can’t claim to have been caught off guard by this pandemic. We have long had the data to show that millions of households with children ages 6 to 17 don’t have home internet service. Even before this crisis,90% of high school teachers were assigning online homework, despite the fact that almost one in five teens reported lacking the internet access to complete it. This “homework gap” also reflects—and further entrenches—our country’s stark racial inequities; a Pew study found that 13% of white students were sometimes unable to complete homework due to internet access, compared to 17% of Hispanic students and 25% of black students surveyed."

If you genuinely don't give a shit about that fact you should own it, instead of trying to dress up apathy and a singular focus on ISP revenues and stock performance as a sophisticated tech policy ethos.

For decades bipartisan U.S. policy circles have talked endlessly about the digital divide, but delivered little more than empty, political show ponies. For just as long, policy circles were caught up in the debate over whether broadband was a luxury or an essential utility. The U.S. government has long refused to seriously consider broadband the latter, because it would erode the revenues of entrenched campaign finance giants like AT&T and Comcast. Now the check is coming due, and it's all but guaranteed that the folks that should be forced to own their intentional myopia... probably won't:

"These statistics are appalling. Since 1994, we’ve had the technology to deliver the internet to every household in America, but we’ve never mustered the will to make it so. Almost three decades later, we’ve learned two important lessons: one, having the internet at home is not a luxury, but a necessity for modern life; and two, market forces will never close this gap. Now is the time to change this reality, for good, by eliminating every barrier facing communities who want to take action to ensure that broadband is in every home."

We've thrown endless billions at U.S. telecom giants for a rotating crop of fiber networks that were, time and time again, never delivered. Not that we'd ever do one, but I'd wager any audit of U.S. telecom subsidization would find we should have collectively been able to deploy fiber to every home in America several times over based on what American taxpayers have shelled out for so far.

There's long been a chasm between telecom policy and reality, and its never been more stark. Ajit Pai, for example, has spent three years insisting that "curing the digital divide" was his top priority. Yet time after time his policies have made the pricing and availability problem worse, whether it's pretending there is no competition or price problem (you'll rarely hear him acknowledge either), gutting FCC authority, refusing to police outright ISP billing fraud, or eliminating consumer billing fraud protections.

Crappy U.S. broadband is caused by two things: corrupt, feckless governments and a lack of meaningful competition among entrenched monopolies. Either you give a shit about fixing these problems or you don't. Either way, it's a problem that shouldn't have taken a global pandemic to finally take seriously.

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Filed Under: broadband, competition, digital divide, fcc

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  1. identicon
    Rocky, 14 Apr 2020 @ 1:05pm


    So you think we should create the Internet equivalent of the US Post Office?

    Where did you get that from?

    1. If Internet access is a necessity, act like it. Some people move for good schools. Way back in 1999 when DSL was the new shiny I told my wife I wanted to live anywhere within one of the three circles I drew on a map. We were the third customer connected on our local CO and kept that service for almost ten years.

    For many it is a necessity, but they can't move for various reasons - like work, school, family, economics etc. To propose that people move to get internet shows a lack of understanding of the reality many people have to deal with. If you live in a community, you'd expect that the basic necessities where available - right? Like water, electricity/gas etc. Guess what?! Today internet is considered a necessity and the infrastructure for it should be treated as an utility in many ways.

    1. Many, many businesses offer free WiFi. If Internet at home is not an option get to know your local neighborhood, take a walk and spend a few minutes getting the important stuff done. While travelling overseas I'd swing by either the local Subway or Starbucks, buy something and Internet for about an hour. Some nights were web surfing, some facetime, some downloading Netflix to my phone. Optimal, nope. Usable, absolutely. And infinitely cheaper than roaming data.

    There are people who do that because they have no other alternative. If you don't understand why - you are part of the problem.

    1. Sharing. From my apartment I can see something like 100 WiFi networks. Get to know your neighbors. $60 Internet split two (or more) ways brings the cost down.

    And if the ISP find it out they may well terminate your neighbors connection because of TOS-violation. Almost every ISP states in the contract that you can't share your connection with your neighbors - which means that you are proposing a solution that breaks contract law. I find it very illustrative of how dysfunctional the broadband-market is in the USA that some people have to resort to what you propose.

    1. Cell phone service can mitigate the gap. I know one family on a farm miles outside of a tiny town that is completing college classes via distance learning on their Verizon hotspots. Yes it is a finite resource and they don't get to stream Netflix but the critical stuff gets done at the dining room table each night.

    I have a friend that lives on a farm miles outside our smallish town, he has a fiber-connection. He paid ~$1700 upfront for it, and his monthly bill is ~$55 since he went with 1Gb/s. Actually, everyone of his neighbor's farms and houses have fiber-connections and they can choose from 4 or 5 different ISPs due to the simple reason that the owners of the fiber have to provide access. Everyone of them could have stayed on DSL since there was no fixed cost of installation, but a fiber-connection adds value to a property plus it's so much easier to sell. Caveat: I don't live in the dysfunctional internet-desert that is called the USA.

    All your suggestions do diddly to solve the dysfunctional broadband-market in the USA, it's just mitigation of it in a bad way since it all comes down to how good your finances are to support it - which in the end only lines the pockets of the incumbent ISPs even more.

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