The Coronavirus Laid Bare Our Empty Lip Service To Fixing The 'Digital Divide'

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

FCC boss Ajit Pai likes to repeatedly proclaim that one of his top priorities while chair of the FCC is to "close the digital divide." Pai, who clearly harbors post-FCC political aspirations, can often be found touring the nation's least-connected states proclaiming that he's working tirelessly to shore up broadband connectivity and competition nationwide. More often than not, the junkets involve Pai informing locals that gutting FCC oversight of some of the least competitive, least liked companies in America resulted in near-miraculous outcomes.

Reality continues to have something else to say.

In the wake of COVID-19 quarantines, more attention than ever has been given to the fact that upwards of 41 million Americans (double official FCC estimates) still can't get any type of broadband despite thirty years of subsidization and lip service toward fixing the nation's "digital divide." Millions more can't afford service because feckless regulators and limited competition work in concert to ensure U.S. broadband prices remain some of the highest in the developed world. This was always a problem. It's just more obvious now that citizens in countless COVID-19 hotspots are forced to actually pay attention to it.

While there's a universe of folks paid by the sector to pretend this is all fantasy or hyperbole, at the heart of the problem remains captured regulators who can't be bothered to hold bad actors accountable or adequately map where US broadband is or isn't available. The Reveal has a good piece talking to policy experts who, (once again with feeling) note that the core of the problem is bad FCC leadership and bad data. As in, we literally do not know where broadband is available in the United States or at what speeds and price points it's offered. We pretend we do, but we simply don't:

"No one really knows how many people don’t have high-speed internet access. The government puts the figure at 21 million, but most studies show that’s a drastic undercount – Microsoft estimates it could be as many as half of all Americans. But there is something that most people involved agree on.

“This has been a colossal failure,” said Christopher Ali, an assistant professor in media studies at the University of Virginia, who has spent the last few years writing a book about broadband deployment in the United States. “We’re spending a lot of money. We’re just not spending it efficiently, and we’re not spending it democratically.”

Yet we're still throwing countless billions at broadband providers to fix a problem we don't actually understand. Often we don't understand it by design; lobbyists for the biggest broadband providers have for decades fought against more accurate broadband mapping, knowing full well it will only reveal the sorry state of US broadband availability and competition. And when ISPs are caught time, and time, and time again taking taxpayer subsidies for services only half deployed (if you're lucky), our feckless regulators don't genuinely do much about it:

"The last time the FCC handed out money to build internet infrastructure, in 2015, Frontier Communications and CenturyLink, two of the country’s largest internet service providers, collectively won grants worth $3.2 billion over the next four years – more than $800 million a year between them and more than a third of the program’s $9 billion total.

In January, CenturyLink wrote to the FCC to say it was failing to meet a deadline for deploying networks in 23 of the 33 states in which it was working. In April, having also failed to meet deadlines and facing mountains of debt, Frontier Communications declared bankruptcy."

Instead of ramping up competitive policies and accountability for a broken market, the FCC, sans any legitimate evidence, decided to obliterate FCC authority over telecom at lobbyist behest. And while we have seen some efforts to improve broadband mapping of via the Broadband Data Act (which encourages more verification of data by the FCC and the integration of more crowdsourced and detailed data), any actual improvement remains many years and many more millions away from fruition. While the wireless industry is already hard at work trying to ensure that 5G networks are exempt from many of these improvements.

There's an entire cottage industry of telecom-linked experts whose entire mission is to assure you that none of this is actually happening, or if it is happening, it's only because the United States is so gosh darned big. The reality, however, is quite simple: US broadband is patchy, expensive, uncompetitive, and mediocre because the telecom industry lobbies weak-kneed regulators and lawmakers to keep it that way. It's a truth we go to great, comical lengths to deny, because whether it's unaccountable subsidies, monopoly rents, or campaign contributions, it's simply far more profitable to deny it.

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Filed Under: competition, covid-19, digital divide, fcc

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  • identicon
    Pixelation, 24 Jun 2020 @ 7:03am


    The issue for SpaceX is, they haven't offered Pai a nice paycheck after he is done gutting FCC oversight. Otherwise, they could get away with saying whatever they want about latency.

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

  • icon
    hij (profile), 24 Jun 2020 @ 8:41am

    University starts back up in the Fall

    In the Fall when the Universities open their doors, the classes will have options for students to go online and take their requisite two weeks away from classes if they show symptoms of COVID. Students from areas that do not have adequate internet access will have to stay on campus because they cannot go home to isolate themselves and do their classwork. This is a public health issue.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2020 @ 9:02am

    Doesn't matter

    Until the idiots at the top start feeling the consequences of their actions, there will be no change. Remember Trump stated that 100,000 - 200,000 American citizens dying to COVID-19 was "winning." They think nothing of us, and the Coronavirus has not changed that. Hell, the virus hasn't even made it obvious. Anyone paying attention could have told you that fact before COVID-19 hit.

    The only thing that COVID-19 has exposed is the massive amount of uncaring that is the US citizenry. Even when government officials are literally playing god and demanding the public to sacrifice themselves for the top's profit margins, the public will bend over backwards and go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to not just justify going along with it, but to somehow claim that not surrendering to their corporate overlord's greed is a personal loss.

    Welcome to the Divided States of Uncaring Assholes. If you enjoy your stay here, either we haven't screwed you over enough yet, or you're a psychopath.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2020 @ 11:34am

    This will never get fixed as long as the MULTI MULTI MULTI millionaire Ajit Pai has any say.

    When you have someone taking illegal bribes from AT&T and Verizon to pass "rules", its always going to be downhill.

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

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 24 Jun 2020 @ 12:47pm


    Want to create a Corp that Installs and creates internet services to places, no one wants?
    Lots of locations. Lots of work..
    And we could probably get paid Fair money by the gov. And even the states.

    WE might even be able to make deals with the states, that if we find a location and install it, that the COMPANY responsible must Pay the state, to pay us.(NO IOU)..

    Electric corp charges $2000 per 100 feet, to install a pole and line.
    Cable hires people at over $40 per hour, Plus the amount of poles and wires..
    At the Lumber company (I think) the price of a pole is $200-400, getting the rigs to dig and and men to handle it Shouldnt be more then $100-400 per hour. Depending on soil, and Rocks.. But thats suggesting we have to install the holes and poles...and Many locations already have power lines.

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

  • icon
    danderbandit (profile), 24 Jun 2020 @ 1:58pm

    I've been reading TechDirt for a while, and this has been an issue the whole time. And it just hit me. We, the taxpayers, are giving ISPs billions to build networks, that they then don't build, but then we also allow those ISPs to act as if those are their PRIVATE networks that they are allowed to operate anyway they see fit. Insanity.

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

    • identicon
      OGquaker, 24 Jun 2020 @ 9:46pm

      Anarcho-communism has killed fewer people than PG&E

      In 1995 & 96, with 20 telephone calls, I found "public meetings" on the give-away of the electric power utility called "deregulation". One of the two meetings between CPUC, SCEdison, SDG&E, and ratepayers was in a small middle school on a rainy tuesday night in South Central LA, another in Riverside. More white men were on the stage than ratepayers in the audience, i loudly argued that since the power companies were jumping out of making electricity (giving that task to a new corporate breed, "Co-generators"), the PEOPLE had paid many times over for the distribution system and should stop paying & own it. Deregulation (AB 1890) went badly for California, Gray Davis had to sell the State to the bond market just to keep the lights on, and now the bond holders decide our laws.
      Los Angeles DWP kept out of the mess and in 2000 got together with USC to deliver utility DSL... Fail.
      Disclaimer; My great-grandfather was electrocuted in 1924 in a substation, building a community-owned power and water Co. It still delivers.

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

  • identicon
    luka, 15 Jul 2020 @ 10:19am

    On Health Security and reliability

    First thing....

    This was take from

    [R]adiofrequency emissions from antennas used for cellular and PCS [personal communications service] transmissions result in exposure levels on the ground that are typically thousands of times below safety limits. These safety limits were adopted by the FCC based on the recommendations of expert organizations and endorsed by agencies of the Federal Government responsible for health and safety. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that such towers could constitute a potential health hazard to nearby residents or students.”
    What they say about RF radiation in general

    Based on a review of studies published up until 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” based on limited evidence of a possible increase in risk for brain tumours among cell phone users, and inadequate evidence for other types of cancer. (For more information on the IARC classification system, see Known and Probable Human Carcinogens.)

    More recently, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a technical report based on results of studies published between 2008 and 2018, as well as national trends in cancer rates. The report concluded: “Based on the studies that are described in detail in this report, there is insufficient evidence to support a causal association between radio frequency radiation (RFR) exposure and [tumour formation].”

    OK good enough...

    On to Surveillance Capitalism.... Not a conspiracy. Well known and well admitted to.... it's not China or Huawei or anyone outside the US we need to worry about, if you want to stop surveillance start with (no not the government)
    ....yes Silicon Valley and then you can Start with the government and educating them to as to why they need to curtail this activity.....anti-trust violations, unbridled designs of over 50 billion IoT with little to no security in mind, poor quality, poor reliability (unlike LAN lines 5 9's of reliability) and you could actually hear and understand the person you were talking to.

    Mobile phone companies and mobile phone infrastructure are shit..(and the money flying our of your pocket is a jack...but people like the dopamine and the fevered self importance. Hack the system.... get a LAN line. No one is going to make this world a better place but us....

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

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