from the deregulate-ALL-the-things! dept
We’ve noted for a very long time that despite a lot of lip service about broadband, the U.S. government still doesn’t have a very good idea of where broadband is or isn’t available. There’s a long line of reasons for this, including political pressure by regional monopolies that very much don’t want a lack of competition and high prices to be apparent (somebody might get the crazy idea to try and fix the problem!). The FCC has also long been criticized for methodology that declares a census block (which can be hundreds of square miles) “served” with broadband if just one home can theoretically get service from an ISP.
The problem is made fairly apparent if you spent a few minutes with the FCC’s $350 million broadband availability map, which just outright hallucinates available competitors and speeds, and can’t be bothered to include an essential metric: prices.
Telecom mono/duopolies like AT&T and Comcast want policymakers looking at the problem through rose-colored glasses. The illusion protects up a broken US telecom subsidization process that mindlessly throws money at them for projects that make no coherent sense or often don’t materialize. All propped up by zero accountability, and this belief that if you “deregulate” telecom, magic happens. But deregulating a broken captured industry dominated by natural monopolies doesn’t result in magic. It results in those dominant monopolies behaving worse than ever. There’s thirty years of evidence to that point.
It’s a very profitable mess that a select group of large companies work very, very hard to keep intact.
Enter the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which earlier this month put a stick in the front wheel of this dysfunction by releasing a new broadband map that tracks both median speeds and affordability, the latter being a subject big ISPs and captured regulators never want to talk about. The map integrates data from a wide variety of sources including Ookla, M-Lab, Microsoft, and the FCC. The red in the shot below represents places where the median broadband speeds fall below 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up (the FCC’s current definition of broadband). It’s not pretty:
There’s a button on the left of the NTIA’s map that lets you overlap lower income areas and see how ISPs like AT&T have routinely neglected marginalized communities, something also documented by several past reports. This is the net result of what countless billions in poorly managed subsidies and rampant, often mindless deregulation delivered. Basically, a US broadband market dominated by regional monopolies and overseen by captured, feckless regulators. The data is the data, and for decades those who’ve coddled entrenched monopolies have tried very, very hard to pretend that this problem doesn’t exist.
One amusing bit: if you zoom in and look at North Dakota, you’ll find that it breaks the national trend of substandard, sluggish broadband:
Why? Because a group of communities grew tired of the apathy of their regional monopolies and bought up their networks to form a massive, interconnected group of cooperatives. Like many community broadband networks, it was a project born out of frustration, resulting in fiber networks that deliver faster, cheaper speeds. Studies keep showing that locally-owned community projects like this routinely offer better, cheaper, faster service at more transparent price points. Such networks often tend to be more accountable because they’re owned and operated by people who live in those communities.
Yet instead of embracing these niche solutions as a creative way to drive an essential service to more people for less money, these projects are routinely demonized by those (like recent FCC boss Ajit Pai) who’d prefer broadband remain monopolized and expensive. There’s an entire cottage industry funded by the telecom sector singularly tasked with pretending that US broadband is perfectly healthy, and attacking absolutely any effort to do anything differently. And they’ve been dominating telecom policy for decades. It’s this monopolization and corruption that results in the “digital divide” still being a problem in 2021.
Community broadband isn’t some mystical panacea. Like any other business plan they’re dependent on the quality of the planning and people involved. But these networks do frequently drive better, cheaper broadband to underserved parts of the United States, and they repeatedly force apathetic regional monopolies to try a little harder. It doesn’t have to be an either/or equation. There’s room for various solutions and players, and numerous ways these home-grown efforts can be integrated into adult broadband policy (cooperatives, piggybacking on existing utilities, private/public partnerships).
But instead of doing that, we let entrenched monopolies write shitty state laws that ban such efforts entirely. We let captured regulators demonize an organic, grass roots response to market failure as “government run amok” or “socialism.” It’s a stupid, self-defeating mess we can fix with enough momentum, but only once people recognize that it’s happening. But when you read most major news reports and hear most politicians talk about “the digital divide,” regional monopolization (and the state and federal corruption that protects it) is bizarrely and routinely never even mentioned.