US Press Continues To Pretend The 'Digital Divide' Just Mysteriously Appeared One Day

from the can't-fix-what-you-don't-understand dept

So if you've read Techdirt for any amount of time, you should be pretty well clued in to the fact that US telecom is a heavily monopolized, feebly regulated mess. Regional cable giants like Comcast and Charter absolutely dominate the market, resulting in 83 million Americans being stuck under a monopoly (see this ILSR report). The result of regional monopolization and captured, feckless regulators is obvious and has been for a good thirty years: high prices, comically bad customer service, spotty coverage, and slow speeds. It's not really a debate, though some telecom-allied policy folks like to pretend otherwise.

Yet every time broadband and the digital divide is trending in headlines, the cause of US broadband dysfunction simply isn't mentioned. For example, as the Biden administration released its new broadband plan this week, numerous news outlets once again dipped their toe into trying to cover the digital divide. And time after time after time, news outlets explain that the digital divide exists, but they somehow never inform readers why. When the subject is covered it's just some thing that appeared one day, like Godzilla out of the ocean.

Over at USA Today, for example, the problem was framed like this:

"About 30 million Americans do not have access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission. But another report puts that at about 42 million. And about 12 million students are impacted by the digital divide, according to a report from Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group and the Southern Education Foundation."

Technically, the number of folks without access to any broadband is closer to 42 million, but whatever. But heavily monopolized broadband access isn't just some thing that popped up one day. It's the direct result of 40 straight years of US policy that prioritized the interests of entrenched giants like AT&T and Comcast at nearly every opportunity. But reading outlets like USA Today, a reader would never know that.

On any given day, go peruse the broadband related news feed and try to find an article that clearly shows readers that telecom monopolies and state and federal corruption are the primary cause of America's mediocre showing in nearly every broadband metric that matters. You'll be hard pressed to find any. Even when outlets like the New York Times publish good articles clearly demonstrating the real world impact of substandard broadband, the problem is presented as something completely detached from any real world causality:

"Longtime advocates of universal broadband say the plan, which requires congressional approval, may finally come close to fixing the digital divide, a stubborn problem first identified and named by regulators during the Clinton administration. The plight of unconnected students during the pandemic added urgency."

Why does America have some of the most expensive broadband in the developed world? Why does the digital divide persist despite the fact we've thrown billions upon billions at the problem? Why do kids in the wealthiest country in the history of the planet have to huddle outside of Taco Bell to attend school during COVID? Why is the United States utterly mediocre in nearly every meaningful broadband metric that matters after decades of this shit? Hint: it's not because the US is big or because stringing fiber is all that hard (though both do make fixing the problem moderately more difficult).

As somebody who's covered the sector for twenty years, the answer is monopolization and corruption. Telecom monopolies literally ghost write terrible state and federal laws that hamstring competition. And because these already politically powerful giants are effectively tethered to our intelligence and first responder communities, they rarely see much in the way of genuine accountability. Again, this isn't a debate or some errant opinion; there's fifty years of concrete data that clearly make this point. Corruption and monopolization are the primary reasons US broadband is painfully mediocre.

This is a choice the US is making and has made for generations. The data are clear. But instead of working furiously to weaken the policy and political stranglehold of companies like Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and AT&T, the US "solution" has been to blindly rubber stamp competition and job eroding megamergers, throw unaccountable billions at monopolies (often in exchange for absolutely nothing), and effectively lobotomize the regulators in charge of making sure the telecom sector functions properly. All under some alt-reality claim this would "restore internet freedom." It's madness and idiocy.

You can't fix a problem you're incapable of even acknowledging. And it's pretty clear most media outlets, stuck under a "both sides" or "view from nowhere" paradigm easily exploited by industry, lack the courage to call a duck a duck. And when the press can't be bothered to frame the problem correctly with essential context, policymakers not only feel far less urgency to do much about it, but the public winds up usually blaming the wrong people. You'd like to think that the press figures this out someday, but it's abundantly clear it's not going to be anytime soon.

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Filed Under: broadband, competition, digital divide

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  1. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 5 Apr 2021 @ 9:30am

    You’ll have to forgive Brainy Smurf; he lost control of his paranoia years ago because someone quoted Barack Obama at him.

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