from the round-and-round-we-go dept
COVID-19 has shone a very bright light on the importance of widely available, affordable broadband. Nearly 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband whatsoever–double FCC estimates. And millions more can’t afford service thanks to a lack of competition among very powerful, government pampered telecom monopolies.
As usual, with political pressure mounting to “do something,” DC’s solution is going to be to throw more money at the problem:
“The plan unveiled Thursday would inject $80 billion over five years into expansion of broadband infrastructure into neglected rural, suburban and urban areas, with an emphasis on communities with high levels of poverty. It includes measures to promote rapid building of internet systems, such as low-interest financing for infrastructure projects.”
To be clear, subsidies often do help shore up broadband availability at coverage. The problem is that the United States government, largely captured by telecom giants with a vested interest in protecting regional monopolies, utterly sucks at it.
Despite ample pretense to the contrary, nobody in the US government actually knows where broadband is currently available. Data supplied by ISPs has never been rigorously fact-checked by a government fearful of upsetting deep-pocketed campaign contributors (and valued NSA partners). As a result, our very expensive ($350 million at last count) FCC broadband coverage map creates a picture of availability and speed that’s complete fantasy. It’s theater designed to disguise the fact that US broadband is mediocre on every broadband metric that matters. Especially cost.
While there has been some effort to fix the mapping problem via recent legislation, the FCC still needs several years (and more money) to do so. And while you’d think this would be more obvious, you can’t fix a problem you can’t even effectively measure. There’s also not much indication that the $80 billion, while potentially well intentioned, would actually get where it needs to go. Especially right now, when federal oversight is effectively nonexistent.
You may or may not have noticed this, but US telecom is a corrupt, monopolized mess. Giants like AT&T and Comcast all but own state and federal legislatures and, in many instances, literally write the law. Feckless regulators bend over backward to avoid upsetting deep-pocketed campaign contributors. So when subsidies are doled out, they very often don’t end up where regulators and lawmakers intended. There’s an endless ocean of examples where these giants took billions in taxpayer subsidies to deploy fiber networks that are never fully delivered.
If you were to do meaningful audit (which we’ve never done because again we’re not willing to adequately track the problem or stand up to dominant incumbent corporations) you’d very likely find that American taxpayers already paid for fiber to every home several times over.
That’s not to say is that there aren’t things Congress could do to help the disconnected during COVID-19. Libraries for example have been begging the FCC for the ability to offer expanded WiFi hotspot access (via mobile school buses) to disconnected communities without running afoul of FCC ERate rules. But while the FCC said libraries can leave existing WiFi on without penalty, it has been mute about whether they can extend coverage outside of library property. Why? As a captured agency, the FCC doesn’t like anything that could potentially result in Comcast or AT&T making less money.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t subsidize broadband deployment once we get a handle on the mapping problem. But it’s a fantasy to think we’re going to immediately fix a 30 year old problem with an additional $80 billion in a mad dash during a pandemic. US broadband dysfunction was built up over decades. It’s the product of corruption and rot that COVID-19 is exposing at every level of the US government. The only way to fix it is to stand up to industry, initiate meaningful reform, adopt policies that drive competition to market, and jettison feckless lawmakers and regulators whose dominant motivation is in protecting AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Spectrum revenues.
Maybe the pandemic finally provides the incentive to actually do that, but until the US does, these subsidization efforts are largely theater.