COVID Drove A Big Jump In Community Broadband Networks

from the build-it-and-they-will-come dept

For twenty-five years now, U.S. broadband has been painfully mediocre in nearly every metric that matters thanks to regulatory capture (read: corruption) and limited competition. With the occasional exception, the U.S. policy solution to this problem has been to kiss the ass of regional telecom monopolies like AT&T and Comcast, throw billions of dollars at these companies for networks that they repeatedly fail to complete, then stand around with a dumb look on our collective faces wondering why we still don't have affordable, widely available, next-generation broadband access.

But as COVID arrived, it brought with it a renewed focus on the problem, brought into stark relief by images of kids having to huddle in the dirt outside of Taco Bell just to attend class. And while these images did drive a lot of important changes -- like a temporary $50 broadband discount for low-income Americans, and the looming $65 billion infrastructure plan (assuming it passes) -- most of these solutions still didn't really target the real reason U.S. broadband is so painfully mediocre: regional monopolization and the state and federal corruption that protects it.

Frustrated by 25 years of this cycle, local communities all over the U.S. keep taking things into their own hands. Data this week complied by the Institute For Local Self Reliance indicates that the number of community broadband networks jumped significantly over the last year, thanks largely due to COVID related annoyance at inadequate broadband:

"When the COVID pandemic shut down our workplaces, schools, and settings for social interaction, it opened the eyes of millions of Americans to the critical importance of affordable access to the Internet,” (Jim) Baller said. "Congress and many states have responded with funding for initiatives to ensure that no Americans are left behind in obtaining access to at least a minimum level of broadband Internet access."

Whether it's a local cooperative, an ISP built on the back of the locally-owned utility, or a government-backed broadband network built from scratch, studies suggest such networks often deliver faster, better service than traditional large cable and phone companies. The revenue made from these networks is also directed back into the local community, and the folks running such networks are more directly accountable to the public because they actually live in the communities they serve. The movement is extremely popular and it's bipartisan.

The benefits of community broadband have been apparent for a while. While not some mystical panacea, it's a local, grass roots reaction to private sector failure that not only provides locals with better broadband, it prompts all too comfortable regional monopolies like Comcast to actually try harder.

Giant regional monopolies (and the think tanks, consultants, and politicians paid to love them) can't admit there's any market failure at all. They also certainly don't want regional communities eroding plump revenues of their clients. So they've taken to demonizing such efforts at every possible opportunity using bunk, cherry picked data and empty fear mongering. When that doesn't work they've literally been able to buy laws in roughly 20 states that strip local infrastructure authority away from the voters:

"Unnerved by the trend, U.S. broadband giants have spent decades lobbying for state barriers to community broadband. According to a new report released by the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC), 20 states have passed laws limiting community broadband, frequently ghost written by regional telecom monopolies hoping to avoid having to try harder.

Mitchell and ILSR peg the total number of such bills as closer to 17, after Arkansas and Washington loosened their restrictions earlier this year.

When you look around and listen to how news outlets or politicians (in both parties) talk about expensive, slow, spotty broadband, notice the bizarre way most avoid acknowledging the real cause of the problem: unchecked monopoly power and state and federal corruption. There's an all-pervasive DC fear of upsetting deep-pocketed campaign contributions from loyal, patriotic allies bone grafted to our intelligence gathering and first responder networks. Government doesn't want to hold telecom giants because they're effectively part of government and part of a longstanding, ongoing grift.

So instead you get this incredible nebulous, vague narrative among policy leaders and the press that talks about the "digital divide" as if it's just this causation free thing that dropped out of the sky one Thursday. A problem that can only be fixed by throwing billions of more dollars in tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory favors at regional telecom monopolies. And despite COVID clearly and painfully showing us all how this approach isn't really working and hasn't worked for decades, rampant state and federal corruption ensures any real change in this dynamic is hard to come by.

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Filed Under: broadband, community networks, competition, covid


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2021 @ 9:35am

    That sound you hear is Richard Bennett angrily gnashing his teeth.


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