from the can't-fix-what-you-can't-measure dept
We’ve noted a few times how there’s an absolutely historic amount of money being thrown at the “digital divide” this year. The broadband infrastructure bill alone designates $42 billion to expanding broadband access. Billions more in COVID relief money started flowing this week courtesy of the Treasury Department.
According to an announcement by the agency, it has begun doling out $583 million from the $10 billion Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund (CPF) to Louisiana, New Hampshire, Virginia, and West Virginia. The funding is supposed to help provide broadband at symmetrical speeds of 100 Mbps to around a quarter million homes. The focus is primarily on those currently out of reach of any broadband at all:
Treasury designed its guidance to prioritize connecting families and businesses with poor and inadequate service – particularly those in rural and remote areas.
But there’s a tiny problem. Despite a lot of pretense to the contrary, we still don’t actually know who does or doesn’t have broadband. The problem is particularly pronounced in states like Louisiana, where companies like AT&T effectively run the state legislature. Bad maps means tons of money being thrown at entrenched, giant ISPs for broadband deployments that often fail to materialize.
The FCC only in the last year or two finally started fixing its shitty mapping after Congress demanded it as part of the Broadband DATA Act. It demands the FCC use more crowdsourced data, do a better job confirming data delivered by ISPs (which have a vested interest in downplaying the problem), and utilize better methodology (the FCC long declared an entire census block “served” with broadband if an ISP claimed it could provide broadband to just one home in that census block).
But these improvements aren’t expected to arrive until late this year at the earliest. In government time that likely means sometime next year, long after the money spigot has started flowing.
That’s not to say this program won’t help some. The funding will go not just to broadband but digital education initiatives. And ISPs that take the funds will need to participate in the government’s low income broadband relief program, which gives low-income Americans $30 off their broadband bills over the next few years (though that program also has a few issues of note).
Again, a lot of this stuff is well intentioned, but it’s kind of hard to fix a problem you haven’t been willing to accurately measure. There’s a reason big ISPs like AT&T have fought for years against accurate broadband mapping: it’s because it would more clearly showcase the impact of monopolization and limited competition.
Most folks in Congress and the FCC (in both parties) literally can’t acknowledge that regional monopolies are the primary reason U.S. broadband is spotty or expensive. Instead, the problem is simply given politically comfortable names like the “digital divide.” This digital divide simply appeared one day and has no understood origin in the minds of your typical DC lawmaker.
So instead of targeting the monopolies or the corruption that protects them to help drive competition and broadband expansion, we really seem to enjoy throwing layers of subsidies on top of a very broken system of monopolization. Then, when the problem isn’t miraculously fixed in a few years, policymakers stand around with a dumb look on their faces before shrugging and starting all over again.