The 'Digital Divide' Didn't Just Show Up One Day. It's The Direct Result Of Telecom Monopolization
from the can't fix what you don't acknowledge dept
We’ve noted for a while that the entirety of DC has a blind spot when it comes to discussing the U.S. broadband problem. As in, U.S. broadband is plagued by regional monopolies that literally pay Congress to pretend the problem isn’t happening. That’s not an opinion. U.S. broadband is slow, expensive, patchy, with terrible customer service due to two clear things: regional monopolization (aka market failure), and state and federal regulatory capture (aka corruption). That the telecom industry employs an entire cottage industry of think tankers, consultants, and policy wonks to pretend this isn’t true doesn’t change reality.
But notice when regulators, politicians, and many news outlets discuss the problem, it’s usually framed in this nebulous, causation free way. About 90% of the time, the problem is dubbed the “digital divide.” But the cause of this broadband divide is always left utterly nebulous and causation free. It’s almost pathological. Seriously, look at any news story about the “digital divide” in the last three months and try to find one that clearly points out that the direct cause of the problem is regional telecom monopolies and the corruption that protects them. You won’t find it.
This phenomenon again showed up this week in a CNET interview with Jessica Rosenworcel, who appears to be the top candidate in the Biden Administration’s glacial pursuit of a permanent FCC boss. In the article, CNET talks repeatedly about the U.S. broadband problem without once mentioning that telecom monopolies exist, and are the primary reason U.S. broadband is painfully mediocre:
“According to a study last year by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, the US has the highest average monthly internet prices when compared to other countries in North America, Europe and Asia. On average, the monthly bill in the US is $84.37, which includes $68.38 for internet service and $15.99 for equipment rental fees.
“What’s become clear is that affordability is a really big issue in the digital divide,” she said. “And we’re going to need programs like the EBB to help solve it.”
Again, please notice how expensive, shitty broadband is just this thing that exists for some nebulous reason. That Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and AT&T have lobbied for thirty years to create a favorable policy environment that harms competition and prioritizes their bloated revenues doesn’t even get a sentence. It’s just this bizarre act of omission driven by, you’d have to imagine, a fear of upsetting sources and advertisers. Or in the case of politicians and regulators, powerful telecom lobbyists that can make or break your career.
Please notice the word “competition” isn’t even used once in an interview with a top U.S. telecom regulator about the state of U.S. broadband, where the primary issue remains a lack of competition. The article almost acknowledges the U.S. telecom monopoly problem when it discusses “digital redlining,” or the documented tendency of regional telecom monopolies like AT&T to refuse to upgrade low income or minority neighborhoods (while simultaneously lobbying for laws preventing them from building their own broadband networks). But even here the problem is addressed in this causation-free, nebulous way:
I think the fact that we’re having a conversation about digital redlining is a good thing. We’ve got communities in this country that for too long have been overserved or underserved and overlooked. We’ve got to figure out how to address that.
Clearly and accurately calling out regional telecom monopolies is just viewed as…impolite in DC and much of the “he said, she said,” access-motivated U.S. press. But you can’t fix a problem you refuse to even acknowledge. And when it comes to regional telecom monopolization and the corruption that protects it, we’re not even beginning to ask the right questions, much less acknowledge the real origins of the problem.