Biden's Broadband Push Is Good, But Crappy Maps And Lobbying Can Still Screw Things Up
from the do not pass go, do not collect $200 dept
So to be very clear: the Biden infrastructure bill has a lot of good things for broadband in it. More specifically, billions in grant money that can be used by states to shore up both “middle mile” and “last mile” broadband access across huge swaths of the country. It’s the biggest lump sum ever doled out by the government for broadband, and it will have a huge positive impact on the nation’s broadband gaps. Especially in perpetually marginalized areas. That can’t be understated.
That said, this isn’t the first time we’ve tried to throw a big chunk of cash at the U.S. broadband problem, and there are numerous ways this could still go south.
The plan relies on many states to build entirely new systems to distribute and spend that money. Given rampant state corruption in broadband policymaking, there’s an unlimited number of ways that entrenched regional monopolies (Comcast, Charter, AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink (Lumen), Frontier) could inject themselves into the process to ensure more money goes to them for dubious deployment promises, and less goes to smaller competitors or faster, better services.
ISP lobbyists already stripped a lot of language they didn’t like out of the original proposal, including clear support for community broadband and tougher speed standards. Now their lobbying folks are busy lobbying the NTIA, which has been tasked with crafting additional standards and funding guidelines in six short months:
“Meanwhile, internet service providers (ISPs) are expected to aggressively lobby the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) as it crafts new internet rules under the infrastructure billâ€™s $65 billion broadband expansion plan. The relatively tiny agency has six months to develop a proposal that will require recipients of federal broadband funding to provide a low-cost broadband option and encourage states to explore alternatives to dominant ISPs such as coops, nonprofits and municipalities.”
U.S. broadband has a 30 year history of ISPs taking billions of dollars for networks they then half deploy, usually with little or no penalty. Whether that happens again here depends entirely on how tough the NTIA and FCC are going to be with regional monopolies, historically neither agencies’ strong suit. And again, more than half the states in the country are literally little more than rubber stamps for the interests of giants like AT&T, so diligence will be required to ensure the money is going toward productive, pro-competitive solutions.
The other major obstacle is the country’s broadband maps, which still don’t accurately track broadband speed, pricing, and availability despite decades of complaints on this subject. While Congress, the FCC, and NTIA have all taken some helpful steps toward better mapping, actual implementation of those reforms are still several million dollars and several years away. That’s too late for states, many of which are currently working on spending $10 billion to shore up access, with $42 billion from the infrastructure bill still on the way. In other words, we’re trying to fix a problem we still haven’t accurately measured the scope of:
“For now, though, many states donâ€™t know where to put that first round of cash. They have only a murky picture of where their internet dead spots are, thanks to the federal governmentâ€™s reliance on broadband mapping methods that dramatically overstate existing coverage.”
Here too, telecom lobbyists, eager to obfuscate the obvious end result of monopolization, limited competition, and regulatory capture, have routinely blocked reform (and will continue to do so). So there’s a lot of money being thrown at a system that historically doesn’t measure the problem it’s tasked with fixing very well, often can’t even acknowledge why the problem exists in the first place (again: regional monopolization, corruption, regulatory capture), and doesn’t like to challenge wealthy and politically powerful telecom corporations tethered to our intelligence and law enforcement apparatus.
That’s not to say a change from the US telecom status quo is impossible; there’s a lot of good folks working very hard to do this the right way. But it is to say that doing any of this correctly is going to require some uncharacteristic aggression, competence, and integrity we haven’t seen in the last forty years of telecom policy.