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
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Apr 2020 @ 7:12am

    Pai's idea is for the people with crappy broadband to all die, and then nobody complains.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Norahc (profile), 14 Apr 2020 @ 8:10am

    Re:

    It took more than Pai to get our broadband to this point...he's just the current face of the problem.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    virusdetected (profile), 14 Apr 2020 @ 8:51am

    Just one more blip of the list of U.S. government failures...

    I have the uncomfortable feeling that the 244-year "clinical trial" for democracy has failed. Our federal government has been taken over by people and corporations with big money. The people we elect to represent us no longer do; they need huge funding just to get elected and are then beholden to those who provide that funding. Over the past many months we've seen repeated failures across the entire government: while millions are suffering from disease and unemployment, the government wants to make it more difficult to get food stamps; the CDC has moved too slowly an ineptly to counter COVID-19; the so-called bailout funds aren't being disbursed to small employers, but huge amounts are going to unknown companies without any oversight (leaving us suspicious that those companies are owned by very large campaign contributors); a huge tax cut, touted as encouraging companies to expand and create new jobs, instead allowed a large number of companies to buy back shares of their own stock; now those same companies are demanding government help to stay in business.

    Alexis de Tocqueville got it slightly wrong. The revised quote should read, "The American Republic will endure until the day large corporations and campaign donors discover that they can bribe Congress with the public's money."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Bruce C., 14 Apr 2020 @ 8:53am

    No surprise at all..

    it took the Great Depression to mobilize the creation of the Tennesse Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Act... nothing has changed. "Meet John Doe" is a fictionalized account, but has some great examples of corporate greed that existed even back before WW2.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    AndreaIravani, 14 Apr 2020 @ 9:13am

    Why does techpert Chris Garraffa continue to deceive people to believe that end to end encryption is private when internet providers, software producers, hardware manufacturers, and utility companies with smart meters still have the abilities to read the communications unencrypted? 

    Stop the bullshit! Garbage in-garbage out!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    PaulT (profile), 14 Apr 2020 @ 9:13am

    Re: Re:

    Yeah, he was just the one who was installed to kill net neutrality. The conditions required for him to be able to do that have been festering for a long time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    ECA (profile), 14 Apr 2020 @ 11:12am

    More to this, then is being applied.

    This also has other affects.
    How bad is the Old phone system, if they cant upgrade it? Time to remove the Old crap 2 copper wires and get a REAL cable out there.
    But, but, we have cellphones. ISNT a reason not to.
    Cellphones and Tablets that work with the net, is another. Wehn they first appeared I suggested the 1 big problem. the display is F'ing small, they were. And tablets arent keeping up with tech either. They didnt sell very well and were laid to the wayside.
    Funny about Tablets, being about 1/2 the tech, lots of Room inside, Cheap camera's 5mp is great for internet chats, a 1080 display this large ISNT hard(anymore), it dont need cell phone(it can, as a module), it dont need GPS(unless your house is THAT big). But WTF is this price point.

    There Can an will be problems with a wireless and Sat system. Weather is a problem, Smog causes problems, and if a Hardwired system is up, there tends to be Less problems with a ground based system. Its protected from about 80% of the worst our planet can do. That other 20% is if we install enough protection for other things like PEOPLE DIGGING.
    The Ideal of any corporation tends to be, the same with HUMANS, the least amount of effort for the most common use. this is not the past, where we built things to last forever(we hoped). Building a Pyramid(?) that will be here in 2000+ years ISNT happening. Digging a HOLE to get more coal and rare metals IS.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    ECA (profile), 14 Apr 2020 @ 11:25am

    Along with all of this.

    Is a medical system that is corporatized, and does
    -nothing it is NOT forced to do.
    -Charges you for Everything it can.
    -Loves insurance corps
    -is part of another over priced system of hardware and Goods for medical use.
    -has little protection for the End user.
    -its only doing it for the money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Apr 2020 @ 12:06pm

    So you think we should create the Internet equivalent of the US Post Office? May I suggest you review the current state of the USPS and compare it to FedEx, UPS, DHL etc? Government rarely does anything very efficiently and one size usually fits no one well.

    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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

    4. 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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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

    Re:

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Rocky, 14 Apr 2020 @ 1:08pm

    Re: Re:

    And I see markup fubared the numbering - oh well..

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Apr 2020 @ 1:17pm

    Re:

    If Internet at home is not an option get to know your local neighborhood,

    That is sound advice during a pandemic, if you want to catch the disease.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Apr 2020 @ 2:20pm

    Re:

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

    How about the equivalent of the road network (which FedEx et al. rely on), the electric grid (they use that too), municipal water supplies, etc.? But also, as much as people badmouth USPS, they deliver to locations that private carriers won't service. So the remote/rural areas might not be so hostile to a Post Office-like internet service, when the alternative is satellite or (28kbps) dialup.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Apr 2020 @ 2:27pm

    Re: Re:

    That is sound advice during a pandemic, if you want to catch the disease.

    The risk is negligible if you keep away from people. In most of the affected areas, people are still permitted to walk/run/bike outside. Or to sit around in a parking lot and use wi-fi.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Apr 2020 @ 2:39pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    That assumes they have their own car available. However touching things that other people have touched, like benches etc. does increase the risk of catching the virus. Walking, running and bike riding involve minimum contact with the same surfaces as other people, however finding somewhere to sit increases the common surfaces touched significantly, and working on a computer increases the frequency of touching ones face.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Dave, 14 Apr 2020 @ 5:51pm

    Re: Re:

    So… Pai in the face.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    tz1 (profile), 14 Apr 2020 @ 6:56pm

    Elected corrupt feckless governments...

    So everyone goes to the polls and does the D or maybe R thing, then complains that the cronies get a monopoly. Meanwhile I'm here in Wyoming in a small town that installed gigabit internet fiber so everyone has access (the only problem is the CDNs aren't up to it). Even if everyone decided to do 4k streams, I wouldn't notice a drop in bandwidth as the entire town has fewer residents than an average subdivision in a larger state. Politicians just point to DC and screech "orange man bad" or the equivalent for Pelosi and Schumer, while giving away the store to the first business that will give them a bribe, oh, I mean campaign contribution. Maybe the number of guns per capita in WY makes our pols more responsive. Or maybe they are just really better...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Apr 2020 @ 7:44pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    When leeching wi-fi, bring your own chair or just make sure you don't touch the public bench with your hands (particularly the armrest when sitting down or getting up). There's no major risk of the virus getting through pants.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    Bergman (profile), 14 Apr 2020 @ 7:47pm

    I live in Seattle

    Aside from being very empty due to the pandemic, we have the absolute BEST Comcast service in the USA. I personally think it has something to do with Microsoft and Amazon being here.

    But whatever the reason, we have the gold standard for both actual service and customer service when something goes wrong. Comcast is far from perfect, but we have it better here than just about anywhere else.

    I have 250 mbit/s internet. It's pretty nice. I pay about two to three times what someone in the EU would pay for 1 gbit/s internet. And gigabit internet is nowhere near the fastest it can go.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    R.H. (profile), 14 Apr 2020 @ 8:00pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Many libraries have had to disable their wi-fi since they'd lose access to the special rates they pay by making it available when they're closed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. icon
    R.H. (profile), 14 Apr 2020 @ 8:28pm

    Re: Elected corrupt feckless governments...

    Maybe if we used a voting system other than first past the post, people other than Democrats and Republicans would be elected with greater regularity. Also, some states have passed laws that make a municipal setup like the one your town has illegal.

    Let me provide you with an example of my first point, a not insignificant number of Michiganders voted for the Green Party candidate in 2016. Another not insignificant number of voters chose the Libertarian candidate that year. Trump won the state by less than either of those vote totals. Unless the system changes, voting for someone other than D or R will cause your second preferred candidate to lose. Even in my local races, although they're technically non-partisan, everyone knows which party the township clerks are in based on who endorses them and their own endorsements for other elected positions.

    In short, you seem to live in a nice area with good broadband and reasonable local governance. Excellent! Not everyone lives in a place with a population density low enough to force everyone to care about each other.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. icon
    PaulT (profile), 14 Apr 2020 @ 11:37pm

    Re:

    "May I suggest you review the current state of the USPS and compare it to FedEx, UPS, DHL etc?"

    May I suggest you look at the types of unprofitable postage items that those companies refuse and the post office are legally obliged to deliver?

    "If Internet access is a necessity, act like it. Some people move for good schools"

    ...and many people cannot. Go to any bad inner city school and ask around to see how many people chose that school and how many are able to move across town to a better one. If you think it's possible for most people to move on a whim, you have something of a childlike naivete about the world which is a little commendable but needs to be addressed before discussing adult issues.

    "While travelling overseas I'd swing by either the local Subway or Starbucks, buy something"

    Lucky you having the money to buy extortionately priced coffee every time you needed to look at your emails. Some job seekers do not have that luxury. There is library, but there's then the time and cost of travelling to the library.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. icon
    Richard Bennett (profile), 15 Apr 2020 @ 5:22pm

    More fake news from Bodey McBodeface

    Another day, another fake news post from TechDirt's resident hypochondriac.

    American broadband is excellent compared to the rest of the world, as every credible study and report from Speedtest by Ookla and Akamai has shown for at least the past decade.

    Getting wired broadband to rural areas is a global problem that we don't do any worse than anybody else does. Rural broadband isn't a competition problem, it's a subsidy problem. If it were easy to solve, Tom Wheeler and Julius Genachowski would have fixed it in their 8 years heading the Obama FCC.

    Chairman Pai has addressed this issue much more aggressively than his predecessors, and he deserves some praise for that.

    McBodeface is a fool.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. icon
    PaulT (profile), 15 Apr 2020 @ 11:08pm

    Re: More fake news from Bodey McBodeface

    "American broadband is excellent compared to the rest of the world"

    My anecdotal experience tell me you're full of shit, and that's even without looking at things like bandwidth caps and high charges that don't exist for me in Europe.

    Link to the studies if you wish, but I'd be willing to bet they leave off a lot of data that keys into the actual experience people have using them (such as the aforementioned prices and caps, which aren't going to be shown in studies that focus on speed or uptime).

    "McBodeface is a fool."

    What is it about your particular brand of misinformation that makes you think this is a way to lend yourself credibility? Are you really there thinking every time "well, I know my data is sound, but a childish schoolyard spot of namecalling will really get people to believe me"?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. icon
    Richard Bennett (profile), 16 Apr 2020 @ 9:52am

    Re: Re: More fake news from Bodey McBodeface

    My anecdotal experience tell me you're full of shit

    Classic TechDirt reader reaction.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. icon
    PaulT (profile), 16 Apr 2020 @ 10:04am

    Re: Re: Re: More fake news from Bodey McBodeface

    Well, more mature and backed by evidence than your claims, so there's that.

    Strange how you didn't read further for my more polite requests to back that shit up. I wonder why? It can't be because the man known for name-calling that would shame a toddler was offended, so what other reason was there?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. icon
    Richard Bennett (profile), 16 Apr 2020 @ 1:18pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: More fake news from Bodey McBodeface

    When people say things like "my anecdote trumps your data" offering more data is fruitless. This isn't my first visit to TD.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. icon
    PaulT (profile), 16 Apr 2020 @ 11:57pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: More fake news from Bodey McBodeface

    We know, we laugh a your easily falsified claims every time you come here. Which is the real reason you refuse to offer data to disprove.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    Richard Bennett (profile), 17 Apr 2020 @ 11:40am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: More fake news from Bodey McBodeface

    You said what you said.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2020 @ 6:32am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: More fake news from Bodey McBodeface

    And you said you were going to cum...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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