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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  1. 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.


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