from the band-aid-on-a-mortal-wound dept
Earlier this week, the Biden administration announced a “new” broadband plan that wasn’t actually new. The rose garden event featured executives from twenty ISPs who all got a pat on the back in front of the cameras for voluntarily and temporarily participating in a Biden plan to provide a $30 discount off of the broadband bills of low-income Americans.
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a temporary plan that provides $30 off low-income broadband bills using a limited pool of taxpayer money. The plan is voluntary, and participating ISPs can quit at any time. It’s a revamp of a previous “Emergency Broadband Benefit” COVID recovery plan that was extended (but reduced from $50 to $30) as part of the Biden broadband infrastructure bill.
To be clear it’s a good thing that low-income Americans get some temporary relief from high prices. But again, the Biden team seems completely unwilling to explain or address why U.S. broadband bills are so high in the first place. 20-40 million Americans lack access to broadband. 83 million live under a monopoly, resulting in high prices, spotty access, and historically terrible customer service.
The reality is that U.S. lawmakers and regulators, under both parties, have turned a blind eye as an essential utility was monopolized over 30 years. And when they do act, they routinely don’t target the thing causing the problem in the first place (Comcast, AT&T regional monopolies), they apply strange and convoluted band-aids, such as net neutrality or this temporary low-income broadband discount.
This was all nuance that was widely missed by the vast majority of news coverage on the Biden announcement. If you dug through the news coverage of the event, you literally could not find a single one that noted why U.S. broadband prices are so high in the first place. Broadband monopolies are often not and, instead, are replaced by a nebulous “digital divide” with no known cause.
This new Biden program doesn’t fix the U.S. broadband problem. It takes a wad of taxpayer cash, and gives it to ISPs (with a long history of misspending subsidies and who created the problem in the first place), who then pass the discount on to low-income Americans (hopefully, after they jump through numerous convoluted hoops). And again, ISPs can quit any time.
It’s also worth noting that several participating ISPs abused the plan when it was first announced to upsell struggling Americans to more expensive tiers. It’s also worth noting that several of the ISPs Biden held a press event with are busy trying to scuttle Biden’s belated nominee to the FCC, Gigi Sohn, an actual monopoly reformer Biden has yet to publicly protect from an ongoing telecom smear campaign.
Which is to say there’s some mixed messaging here. We care about low-income Americans, but not enough to publicly support an FCC nominee and reformer that could actually help them. We care about U.S. broadband, but not enough to accurately single out what’s really causing the problem. We care about the “digital divide,” but we don’t want to make the companies responsible for it mad.
The GOP adores telecom monopolies to a point where the two entities are indistinguishable.
The DNC often is notably better on the subject, but it also often likes to pretend that telecom monopolization doesn’t exist, or isn’t a problem. They talk endlessly about the “digital divide,” but they lack the political courage to acknowledge why it exists or genuinely do much about it (for example, try to find a single time either of the two existing Democratic FCC Commissioners clearly criticized monopolization specifically).
Biden did mention a lack of competition late in the event, but didn’t call out what causes that lack of competition (regional monopolization and the state/federal corruption that protects it). And the $42 billion we’re spending to expand broadband will help address some broadband coverage gaps, though there’s some big issues there as well (see this story on our crappy broadband maps, and this one on how states are trying to make sure this money goes largely to monopolies and not competitors).
So again, is a temporary $30 discount for poor people on broadband good? Yeah. But again it’s just a band-aid for a deeper problem we refuse to address. And we refuse to address it in large part because many of the monopolies causing the problem (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Charter) are bone-grafted to both our intelligence gathering apparatus and our first responder networks. They’re part of the government.
As such, calling them out for predatory, monopolistic behavior would come with political and campaign contribution costs many lawmakers and policymakers aren’t willing to incur. As a result, in very American fashion, we often focus on treating the symptoms, but not the disease.