We Just Keep Throwing Billions At Telecom Monopolies In Exchange For Half-Completed, Shitty Broadband Networks
from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
The Wall Street Journal has offered up a helpful report (outside the paywall, for now) on the giant mess that is U.S. broadband subsidy efforts. Like many previous studies, it points out how we’ve spent just countless billions of dollars on expanding broadband access with decidedly mixed results. Also like many previous mainstream stories of this type, it focuses pretty much exclusively on government dysfunction.
And to some degree that’s understandable. Government has long done a terrible job tracking where broadband is or isn’t available, then throwing billions in unchecked subsidies at regional monopolies in exchange for half-completed projects. It doesn’t genuinely hold big companies accountable for fraud, and generally doesn’t embrace policies that ever seriously challenge those companies’ dominance.
An analysis of U.S. broadband deployment by the Journal found, unsurprisingly, that funding has been thrown numerous times at the same regions that are still (gasp!) somehow waiting for modern-era broadband to arrive:
The U.S. government has spent billions of dollars on several rounds of programs to upgrade internet speeds in rural areas over the past decade. Despite those efforts, many residents are still stuck with service that isn’t fast enough to do video calls or stream movies—speeds that most take for granted.
Many communities have been targeted for broadband upgrades at least twice already, but flaws in the programs’ design have left residents wanting.
So weird how that happens. I’ve spent the better part of a life writing about how federal and state telecom regulators and politicians throw billions at companies for fiber networks that then somehow, repeatedly and quite mysteriously, never arrive. It happens over and over and over again, with only fleeting penalties for big ISPs that miss meaningful deployment goals.
The takeaway from the Journal report is that this is entirely the fault of government and government programs. In fact this is the kicker quote the paper chooses to use to frame the problem:
“In retrospect it’s not surprising that companies made a business decision to do the bare minimum,” said Carol Mattey, an industry consultant and former senior FCC official.
What the Journal just weirdly omits is that consistently terrible U.S. federal and state broadband policy is the byproduct of 30 years of lobbying by regional monopolies. Every shred of U.S. telecom policy dysfunction exists to the direct benefit of entrenched giants that don’t want to try very hard.
We can’t measure broadband gaps accurately. We can’t track where subsidies go very well. We can’t protect consumers from very obvious telecom pricing scams. Policymakers in both parties rarely if ever acknowledge that monopolies exist or that consolidation is a problem.
Instead we’ve labeled the problem an ambiguous “digital divide,” with apparently no known cause or origin, that you throw money at repeatedly, year after year, without an honest reckoning on whether it’s working.
Yes, government is broken, but that’s often a byproduct of pretty obvious corruption, which you’d think might warrant a mention if you’re actually informing your readers about the scope of the problem.
We’re about to spend $42 billion more in broadband subsidies despite the fact we still haven’t fixed longstanding broadband mapping problems. There are some useful mapping improvements in the pipeline, but they’re not expected to even start to arrive until long after the money starts flowing, meaning much of the money will again go toward regional monopolies for networks they half deploy.
Telecom monopoly lobbyists are already hard at work trying to ensure that this money all goes to them (for their perpetually half-delivered networks) and not to any potential competitors. That’s proven to be particularly easy in some states where telecom monopolies effectively control the legislatures.
So yeah, the U.S. government is a mess, Congress can’t function, and a lot of states aren’t much better. But that’s not necessarily because government itself is inherently flawed, it’s because this is the desired outcome from a generation of lobbying by monopolies that like things precisely how they are. Big news outlets and politicians alike avoid mentioning this because it’s in their financial best interests to avoid it.