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.

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

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  1. 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.

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