Crappy US Broadband Is Also Hampering Equitable Vaccine Deployment

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

As our recent Greenhouse policy forum on broadband made abundantly clear, COVID is shining a very bright light on US broadband dysfunction. The high cost of service, spotty coverage, slow speeds, and high prices are all being felt acutely in an era where having a decent broadband connection is the pathway to education, employment, healthcare, and opportunity. And after 25 years of US apathy to its telecom monopoly problem, COVID-19 is applying pressure on lawmakers and regulators in an entirely new way to do something about the 42 million without broadband, the 83 million under a monopoly, and the tens of millions who simply can't afford service due to limited competition.

But it's not just high prices and spotty coverage that have proven to be an issue in the COVID era. In Kentucky, one of countless US states where local monopolies AT&T and Time Warner Cable (now Charter Spectrum) literally dictated state telecom policy for 25 years (with obvious results), a lack of broadband access is hampering the public's access to vaccines. Louisville, Kentucky high schoolers recently set up VaXConnect Kentucky to help seniors get access to their first and second shots. And they're finding themselves "surprised" to learn just how many people don't have access to a reliable, affordable connection:

"People are calling us and they only have landlines, and they don't have internet or a computer or an email," Beck says. "That's more common than I realized."

Granted part of the problem is monopolization and limited competition impacting broadband availability and price. But the other problem, long discussed here at Techdirt, is the fact that state and federal regulators have done a piss poor job accurately measuring broadband availability. In large part because giant incumbents like AT&T have fought tooth and nail against improving broadband mapping for the better part of thirty years. Mostly because once lawmakers and regulators get a better sense of monopolization's real impact, they might just get the crazy idea to do something about it.

In this case, our failures to seriously tackle monopolization and regulatory capture are having a very real human cost. And usually, it's the most vulnerable among us who are the first in line to feel the pain, something experts also discussed at length during our recent Greenhouse panel:

"About 27% of American adults over the age of 65 don't use the internet, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew also reported that a third of Black adults in the US lack home broadband. ABC News reported that the situation is even worse for seniors of color. Meanwhile the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people 65 and older, as well as members of racial and ethnic minority groups, are dying at disproportionate rates from COVID-19."

Having co-built DSLReports, I spent every day for fifteen years watching first hand how the broadband industry (and its various policy tendrils at think tanks, consultants, and lobbying shops) spent millions of dollars and countless man hours trying to convince the press, public, and regulators that the US broadband market was perfectly healthy and competitive, and in absolutely no need for reform or meaningful oversight. COVID has, in a very short amount of time, punched that self-serving, bad faith argument squarely in the jaw. Hopefully we learn something from the experience.

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Filed Under: broadband, competition, covid-19, fcc, us, vaccines


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  • icon
    Ben (profile), 8 Mar 2021 @ 7:02am

    bottom line

    Unfortunately it is very likely that the broadband providers will not be in the least bit interested in serving the low income (urban poor of any colour) or low margin (rural below median income) segment of the market until those segments become profitable.
    In the UK, that didn't happen until broadband connectivity came bundled with premier league football provided by Sky, which the (mainly male) analogous segments in the UK seem to treat as a higher priority than almost any thing else.
    There are, of course, still people and isolated regions of the British Isles that are underserved by broadband connectivity of any meaningful standard, but it seems the proportions are not as bad as in the continental US.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2021 @ 8:07am

      Re: bottom line

      There are, of course, still people and isolated regions of the British Isles that are underserved by broadband connectivity of any meaningful standard,

      And they are free to install their own system. Others have gone for their own WiFi installations.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2021 @ 8:40am

      Re: bottom line

      Sad, but true.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2021 @ 1:35pm

      Re: bottom line

      But the industry has been subsidized since inception to provide internet to exactly the "non-profitable" markets, so that suggestion is invalid about 10 times over at this point.

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

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 8 Mar 2021 @ 3:45pm

      Until it is profitable

      This is the reason we sometimes need socialized services. Much the way USPS is the only delivery service that guarantees delivery to any residence or place of business in the US (whether or not it's profitable to ship things there), there are some services for which access should be guaranteed. Things like water and power.

      And in 2021, broadband internet.

      Given the shitty service Comcast already provides, I can't imagine if it were seized by the state for imminent domain that it would do any worse.

      Not that this could happen in the US given that our government rules not for the people but for plutocrats.

      So...eat the rich, I guess.

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

  • icon
    Bloof (profile), 8 Mar 2021 @ 7:08am

    Don't worry, 5g will save them and solve all of America's connectivity woes.. Oh wait.

    If people in Kentucky want better broadband, maybe it would help if they stop electing people who fight to protect monopolies, ban municipal broadband and kill things like Net Neutrality.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2021 @ 7:46am

      Re:

      But Bloof, don't you realize the problem is the Democrats. Why? Well it always is. In this case they have unrealistically raised expectations and interfered with the free market by trying to insist that people get what they need.

      Besides, they are Godless heathens and their existence allows the devil to interfere with Republican perfection with pesky, unnecessary details.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2021 @ 8:38am

        Honestly...

        Democrats, Republicans, it's all the same to me.

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

        • icon
          Stephen T. Stone (profile), 8 Mar 2021 @ 9:24am

          If you truly see no difference between a party that tries to govern (but fails at doing so effectively) and a party that tries to prove government doesn’t work (by actively refusing to let it work), calling you “unintentionally ignorant” is the most generous thing I can do for you.

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

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2021 @ 1:08pm

            Re:

            I do remember a time when this wasn't too unreasonable a position to take. Then came the Tea Party that claimed to be non-partisan but somehow found it's only home on the obstructionist right of the Republicans. Then came Trump and sanity and principal more or less completely left the right. The vast majority of their partisans stayed and descended into the morass that is Trumpism, and their criticisms of the other party became more and more bitter, nasty projections of their own behaviour.

            There are plenty of Democrats whose political behaviour is about as far from pragmatic as you can get and more than a little impractical. Among them you can find more than enough whose world view is a rather stark contrast with objective reality and some of those have absolutely no mental connection with the world around them, but they are collectively light years ahead of the Trumpist republicans who can't tell the difference between a party manifesto and Qanon.

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

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2021 @ 12:16pm

          Re: Honestly...

          "Democrats, Republicans, it's all the same to me."

          Must be one of those spoiled C-Suite types playing both sides against the middle and the easily bribed politicians have no sense of responsibility.

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

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 8 Mar 2021 @ 1:25pm

      Re:

      Not to hard if you have a newspaper and can send the papers OUT FREE.
      But if you dont have that much money. it dont help.

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

  • icon
    AC Unknown (profile), 8 Mar 2021 @ 9:07am

    Spambot warning!

    This is a spambot above me.

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

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 8 Mar 2021 @ 9:41am

    "Hopefully we learn something from the experience."

    puts on his sociopathic immortal hat
    Karl, honey.... have you met humans?

    There were Maskholes during the Spanish Flu, & amazingly no one thought there would be people STUPID enough to not wear masks in a pandemic... I give you... Humanity.
    Humans claiming its not a real thing... been there done that.
    Humans claiming its a plot... been there done that.

    The human ability to claim that this has never happened before & will never happen again only to repeat it a few years later is one of the great mysteries to this immortal, often left wonder how the hell y'all manage to survive.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2021 @ 9:56am

    What absolute rubbish! You just ask the major companies and the politicians who are taking back handers! They'll tell you the truth about what's wrong! Things like not been given enough tax breaks, or enough public money to squander on ceo salaries and retirement packages, or maybe even too long between upgrades and new installs being done, because of the above reasons!1

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

    • icon
      That Anonymous Coward (profile), 8 Mar 2021 @ 10:11am

      Re:

      New reality TV show....

      We drop CEOs in the middle of the areas they refuse to service & tell them if they get a signal they can go home.

      Then we send in the covid infected.

      Okay maybe not the best idea, but in my defense I am a sociopath and I really think after the first 3 CEOs die the others might fall into line.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2021 @ 12:21pm

        Re: Re:

        I like the idea. Could be like Dual Survival, where one person does not wear pants and the other is an over excited war veteran. Gotta see the CEO whining about having to drink their own piss.

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

      • icon
        ECA (profile), 8 Mar 2021 @ 1:31pm

        Re: Re:

        China syndrome.
        LOVE IT.

        But why not Dock wages? they would do it to lower paid persons working, they do it to those that Ran away from Children they had from girl friends.
        We should also do it tot he politicians. A quarterly Eval. Make it every month on payday.
        Let him show his work, and justify it.

        For the CEO, give him home work, and he dont get it done, he has to Loose wage, and LIVE int he area, NOT UPDATED.

        AND I really want the backbone Checked. They bought the tier 1 parts of it, and I will BET, its not updated nor fully installed. and would answer allot of reasons they DONT finish the last mile.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2021 @ 1:13pm

    About 27% of American adults over the age of 65 don't use the internet, according to the Pew Research Center.

    Of the remaining 73%, would they be comfortable giving personal information to sign up for the vaccine? Would they know how to check whether they're communicating with the legitimate government body managing this? Even for the rest of us, I'll bet there are more than a few ad-hoc sites like StateCovidVaccine.com that are official but disregard the hierarchical nature of DNS, so as to leave us guessing.

    The hackers of 2600 Magazine have noted a large number of questionable COVID domains being registered in the past year, including an attempt to "phish" the employees of the World Health Organization (which is how they got the chief computer security person, Flavio Aggio, to give a keynote address at their conference).

    Broadband access, though, is (or should be) a red herring with regards to vaccine signup. The dialup services of 30 years ago had sufficient capability to collect one's name and contact data, and respond with appointment details. If the modern sites require one to load 10 MB of Javascript first, well, that's their own stupidity.

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


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