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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  1. 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....

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