As Pandemic Exposes US Broadband Failures, FCC Report Declares Everything Is Fine

from the rose-colored-glasses dept

42 million Americans lack access to any kind of broadband whatsoever -- more than double official FCC estimates. Millions more can't afford broadband because the monopolized US telecom sector suffers from a dire lack of competition in most markets. US telcos, bored with the slow rate of return, have effectively stopped upgrading their DSL networks across broad swaths of America, leaving cable giants like Comcast and Charter spectrum with a bigger monopoly than ever across wide swaths of America. And no, wireless 5G won't magically fix the problem due to patchy availability and high prices.

This is, to hear the FCC tell it, all going swimmingly.

By law (Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996) the FCC is required once a year to issue a report indicating whether quality broadband is being deployed on a "reasonable and timely basis." If not, the agency is supposed to, you know, actually do something about it. But every year like clockwork, the FCC issues the report ignoring all of the biggest problems in the telecom sector, to the obvious benefit of an industry eager to keep things precisely as they are: largely uncompetitive. Never will you see policy that improves competition, because the lack of competition isn't even acknowledged.

This year was no exception. The Trump FCC's latest report once again insists that broadband "is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion," so no shift from the status quo is necessary. And in a very Trumpian statement, FCC boss Ajit Pai congratulates himself for incredible leadership, while repeating the falsehood that his decision to take an axe to already fairly filmsy FCC oversight of the broken sector has somehow resulted in a massive wave of new investment:

"Under my leadership, the FCC's top priority is to close the digital divide, and I'm proud of the progress that we have made. Having grown up in rural Kansas, I have a deep commitment to expanding broadband to all corners of the country. That's why we've taken aggressive steps to remove regulatory barriers to broadband deployment and reform our Universal Service Fund programs."

For about the four-thousandth time, investment at major ISPs like Comcast and AT&T has dropped under Pai's "leadership," which has effectively consisted of rubber stamping AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and T-Mobile's every request. And Pai's version of "reforming" programs like the universal service fund (created by Reagan and expanded by Bush to provide a small subsidy to the poor) has involved trying to dismantle the program using shaky logic that the courts have rejected.

Much like Pai himself, the report goes to comic lengths to pretend US broadband isn't a broken market dominated by a handful of monopolies. It goes well out of its way to ignore the fact that Americans pay more for broadband than a long-list of other developed nations. It goes well out of its way to pretend that US broadband providers don't have the worst customer satisfaction ratings of any sector in America, a monumental feat. And it goes well out of its way to pretend that the overarching US policy of kissing the ass of companies like Comcast and AT&T is an effective, serious policy.

In a dissenting statement, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wasn't particularly impressed, calling her agency's own report "baffling":

"This report is baffling. We are in the middle of a pandemic. So much of modern life has migrated online. As a result, it has become painfully clear there are too many people in the United States who lack access to broadband. In fact, if this crisis has revealed anything, it is the hard truth that the digital divide is very real and very big.

But you'll find no evidence acknowledging that in today's Broadband Progress Report from the Federal Communications Commission. Instead, you'll find a glowing assessment that all is well. According to this rosy report the nation's broadband efforts are all good. They are proceeding in a reasonable and timely fashion and they are reaching all Americans. This is just not right."

It's certainly not right, but it's not particularly baffling.

Major telecom providers are so politically powerful, they all but own the majority of state and federal legislators, to the point where they often literally write the law. As a result US telecom policy for the better part of 30 years has involved refusing to even acknowledge the sector's most basic problems. Try to find a moment where Ajit Pai even acknowledges that US broadband prices are high and the sector isn't particularly competitive. You won't find it. And you can't fix a problem you refuse to acknowledge and can't be bothered to accurately measure.

US telecom policy remains stuck in fantasy land where there is no problem to fix, a narrative propped up by an ocean of telecom industry think tankers, consultants, hired economists, and others who'll engage in mental gymnastics to insist there's absolutely no serious problems here. In reality, US policy priority involves protecting the revenues of giants like AT&T, who are too big to fail and bone-grafted to the country's intelligence surveillance apparatus. Companies we repeatedly throw tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory favors at in exchange for a myriad of empty promises.

Telecom giants and their allies have gone to comical lengths to justify regulatory capture and ignore the sector's biggest problems. With a pandemic clearly showing that broadband is an essential lifeline, that kind of denialism is going to be a lot harder to sell in the years to come.

Filed Under: ajit pai, broadband, digital divide, fcc


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 6:43am

    All a matter of perspective

    From the perspective of the general public, broadband deployment, availability, service and price are complete and utter garbage for large numbers of people, making the report nothing but lies and willful blindness.

    From the perspective of the broadband companies however things are great, as they basically own a whole slew of politicians and agencies and can do whatever the hell they want, raking in the money from their monopoly positions. From this perspective the report is actually fairly accurate, as things are indeed working out just fine.

    Given who Pai has made crystal clear be believes he represents and works for it's hardly a wonder that he would view things from the latter perspective.

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

  • icon
    virusdetected (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 7:20am

    Just one piece of a much larger problem...

    Numerous Federal government agencies are no longer functional or performing any of the tasks related to their mission. Why should the FCC be any different. Long-time employees are disheartened by how their mission has become a political weapon.

    Based on conversations with former colleagues who are employed by our government, I've learned that pretty much everyone in many of the civilian-facing agencies is in a holding pattern; their leadership is in hiding, afraid to draw scrutiny from the Emperor.

    Some organizations are notably dysfunctional, e.g., FEMA, which is taking orders from the arrogant but incompetent son-in-law.

    The components of the DoD keep doing what they're supposed to do, although their mission is increasingly confused. My friends in the Intel community are discouraged; their top boss is a political hack and their efforts to alert the leadership to potential threats have been, and continue to be, ignored.

    Bottomline: it's no longer our government. He who has the gold makes the rules.

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

    • icon
      rangda (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 8:14am

      Re: Just one piece of a much larger problem...

      it's no longer our government

      I suspect that this has been true for longer than any of us have been alive. The only difference now is that those in power have discovered that they can be much more blatant about it and still get away with it.

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2020 @ 8:02am

    "Everything is fine," mumbled Richard Bennett, licking a Reese's Piece from Pai's second mouth.

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2020 @ 8:41am

    greed is the virus
    fear is the key
    control is the objective

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

  • identicon
    Baron von Robber, 29 Apr 2020 @ 10:07am

    So Data Cap excuses...

    ... are bullshit.

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

  • identicon
    Heather M, 29 Apr 2020 @ 10:11am

    Well let me tell you as one in the trenches there is a damn problem with broadband being presented in a "reasonable and timely fashion". The Covid 19 pandemic is just shining a spotlight on cracks that were already there. The FCC is just looking at the cracks and walking off whistling Ma Bells advertising tone.

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    Richard Bennett (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 11:25am

    This is a deployment report, not a happiness report.

    Critics of the FCC Broadband Deployment Report don't seem to understand its purpose. Congress ordered the FCC to issue regular reports on the deployment of advanced networks, not on their use or on the nature of the broadband market or how much subscriptions cost or how many homes have computers or any number of other fascinating questions.

    Hence, the question the FCC has been asked by Congress is quite different from the one that Bodey and Rosenworcel wish it had been asked.

    Is broadband being extended into unserved areas at a reasonable and timely rate, yes or no?

    Are existing networks being regularly upgraded to higher speeds, yes or no?

    The answer to the relevant questions is yes, and has been yes for decades.

    The questions that come up relative to subscription rates is whether Congress should fund programs to increase the Lifeline subsidy or other programs along the lines of Comcast's Internet Essentials. If encouraging more people to buy Internet subscriptions is something Congress cares about, all it has to do is say so and write some checks. I don't think any ISP in America would be disinterested in signing up more subscribers to subsidized plans.

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

    • icon
      virusdetected (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 11:42am

      Re: This is a deployment report, not a happiness report.

      The answer is the first of the relevant questions is NO. The report is constructed in such a way as to create a very false impression. Compared to much of the rest of the world, the U.S. has terrible deployment coverage. The pandemic has just made that more obvious by demonstrating how many people cannot work from home and how many kids cannot attend school from home.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2020 @ 2:09pm

      Re: This is a deployment report, not a happiness report.

      I don't think any ISP in America would be disinterested in signing up more subscribers to subsidized plans.

      Indeed, sir. Some ( cough, cough Sprint ) like those subsidized plans overmuch.

      As well, sir, the FCC's abandonment of jurisdiction over ISPs included ending their central organization of the Lifeline project. That is a mixed bag that is still sorting itself out. But that's okay as long as it is someone else's problem, you seem to be saying.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2020 @ 2:14pm

      Re: This is a deployment report, not a happiness report.

      Is broadband being extended into unserved areas at a reasonable and timely rate, yes or no?

      Are existing networks being regularly upgraded to higher speeds, yes or no?

      The answer to the relevant questions is yes, and has been yes for decades.

      ... and when you can determine for yourself what a reasonable and timely rate is, or how regularly (or how upgraded) is necessary to qualify, it is trivial to make sure the answers reflect favorably upon you for decades.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2020 @ 5:45pm

      Re:

      Right on cue, the chucklenut who defends the usage of fake profiles to generate support for net neutrality repeals shows up to simp like a beta cuck for big Daddy Pai. I'm shocked, I tell you.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 May 2020 @ 2:37pm

      Re: This is a deployment report, not a happiness report.

      Try again Richard.

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

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 12:25pm

    Broadband Diffinition?

    What is it..to the corps?
    well we cover?
    internet, TV, Cellphone
    Wireless is going up
    Cellphones have internet
    Cable TV/Internet/other
    Phones have DSL
    We are installing Low level sats to cover more. We can cover everyone with the wireless services we have and are installing.. Ask Hughes and Dish and 2-3 others sat Services.
    PS. look up free to Air, Sat.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2020 @ 12:48pm

    'that kind of denialism is going to be a lot harder to sell in the years to come'

    oh, no i wont because there are so many people in Congress, FCC etc taking 'campaign' contributions from these telecom giants to ensure that nothing will change, ever! not until someone in a high position of power finds him/herself, or a very close family member, actually on the receiving end of a life or death situation, particularly if death is the outcome, then maybe, just maybe something will be done! but things have been left so as to get so much worse, year on year, giving these companies the 'too big to fail' opinion of themselves and the ability to stop anything that they even think might harm them from happening, in particular, ensuring that there is no such thing as competition to them!!

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2020 @ 2:49pm

    doesn't seem fine

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


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