Detroit The Latest City Forced To Cobble Together Working Internet Thanks To Telecom Market Failure

from the so-heartwarming! dept

Frustrated by slow speeds, high prices, and spotty broadband availability (read: market failure) more than 750 US towns and cities have explored some kind of home-grown broadband option. Sometimes that's a local cooperative. Sometimes it's an extension of the locally owned power utility. Sometimes it's a public/private partnership with an existing internet provider. And sometimes it involves building an entire local broadband network from scratch. But always it's motivated by one thing: an ever growing, multi-decade frustration at the lack of competition and options in the US broadband market.

Enter Detroit, which is the latest city where annoyed users are being forced to build an entirely new ISP block by block:

"Detroit has historically been one of the least connected cities in America, with about 40 percent of Detroit residents lacking any home internet access at all. Things are changing, though, thanks in large part to projects like the Equitable Internet Initiative (EII), a collaboration between the Detroit Community Technology Project and a network of community organizations."

The effort involves relying on voluntary bandwidth provided by local enterprise provider 123Net. From there, locals are getting speeds of 25 Mbps via point to point wireless. That's a notable improvement for the 40% of the city that has no access to broadband at all. Or other major chunks of the city, where aging AT&T DSL may be their only option. If you're really lucky, an expensive Comcast cable line is your only broadband option.

But there's something that grates on me about these stories and it's this: for whatever reason, most major press outlets covering broadband in 2021 act as if the "digital divide" is this thing that just dropped from the sky one day. But the reason it still exists in 2021 is due to the regional monopolization and the corruption (federal and local) that protects it. Consumer groups have repeatedly showcased how with no competition and feckless regulatory oversight, AT&T just often simply refuses to upgrade its aging network. They've also shown how this impacts marginalized and low-income communities the hardest:

But for whatever reason, The Hill writes an entire story about Detroit's broadband problems and... doesn't mention AT&T's regional monopolization or political and regulatory corruption at all. There's just no shortage of stories like this that cover America's broadband dysfunction and the ad hoc solutions people are forced to come up with to get online, yet just fail completely to explain why this is happening. And kind of like stories where a local kid has to crowdfund his open heart surgery because our medical system is broken, the press tends to frame these efforts as heartwarming.

But it's extremely rare you see major outlets clearly explain that US broadband dysfunction was an active policy choice. It's the direct result of 25 straight years of prioritizing the interests of regional monopolies, and coddling giants like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast. It's the direct result of signing off on mindless consolidation and harmful megamergers. It's the direct result of choosing not to embrace pro-competition policies. It's the direct result of repeatedly neutering telecom regulatory oversight under the (false) promise this somehow results in telecom Utopia (despite 25 years of evidence this isn't true).

At this point our broadband failures aren't a matter of technology, or cost. After all, we've thrown countless billions of dollars at these incumbent broadband giants for fiber networks that mysteriously always wind up half completed. They're the result of leadership failure and corruption. But instead of clearly acknowledging and fixing these problems, we seem obsessed with (as the Trump era made fairly clear) doubling down on the bad choices that created them. Then dismissing the high prices, spotty coverage, and substandard service as just something that appeared one day, utterly free of any meaningful causation.

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Filed Under: community broadband, competition, detroit, fcc, municipal broadband


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Jun 2021 @ 10:24am

    Re: So last century!

    If you mean local loop unbundling, the USA has had it since 1996. The term "local loop" only refers to analog telephone lines—not fiber or cable, and in the USA, not wires to remote DSLAMs—which makes it pretty useless for any loops longer than 500-1000 meters (the distance at which VDSL2 can give 50-100 Mbit/s).

    The USA also used to require the telcos to sell wholesale DSL connections to ISPs (with the telco running the DSLAM), but the telcos somehow convinced the FCC it was unfair, so now it's not required. A moot point anyway because they've left these networks to rot.

    What's needed is something like OpenReach in the UK, where wire providers cannot be ISPs. Or municipal open-access networks like Ammon, O. In the long term, the big American ISPs might be fucking themselves—since country-wide rules seem politically impossible, they might find themselves having to deal with hundreds of different rulesets by state and city.


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