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It Shouldn’t Have Taken A Pandemic To Make Us Care About Crappy U.S. Broadband

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Karl Bode
2020-04-14 09:34:22

from the ill-communication dept

For years politicians have paid empty lip service about the “digital divide,” or the essential lack of broadband access and affordability. Yet for decades the problem just kept getting kicked down the road. Why? Because U.S. regulators and lawmakers lacked the courage to tackle the biggest problem: a lack of broadband competition due to monopolization of the market. Nor were they willing to stand up to the politically powerful companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon which fight tooth and nail against any meaningful disruption of this broken status quo.

As a result, Americans have paid some of the highest prices in the world for broadband service that’s not only spottily available, but routinely ranks as mediocre across a wide variety of metrics. From telecom linked think tankers and hired economists to consultants and lobbyists, there’s an entire secondary industry dedicated to pretending this problem is either overblown, or doesn’t exist at all.

Needless to say, it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to expose the superficiality of such claims, or the fact that US telecom issues deserved more attention. With millions of Americans hunkered down at home, a brighter light than ever is being shined on the fact that 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband whatsoever (twice what the FCC claims). Millions more can’t afford service because we’ve allowed an essential utility to be monopolized.

Anybody claiming that any of this is a surprise should be rightfully laughed at:

“…we can’t claim to have been caught off guard by this pandemic. We have long had the data to show that millions of households with children ages 6 to 17 don’t have home internet service. Even before this crisis,90% of high school teachers were assigning online homework, despite the fact that almost one in five teens reported lacking the internet access to complete it. This “homework gap” also reflects—and further entrenches—our country’s stark racial inequities; a Pew study found that 13% of white students were sometimes unable to complete homework due to internet access, compared to 17% of Hispanic students and 25% of black students surveyed.”

If you genuinely don’t give a shit about that fact you should own it, instead of trying to dress up apathy and a singular focus on ISP revenues and stock performance as a sophisticated tech policy ethos.

For decades bipartisan U.S. policy circles have talked endlessly about the digital divide, but delivered little more than empty, political show ponies. For just as long, policy circles were caught up in the debate over whether broadband was a luxury or an essential utility. The U.S. government has long refused to seriously consider broadband the latter, because it would erode the revenues of entrenched campaign finance giants like AT&T and Comcast. Now the check is coming due, and it’s all but guaranteed that the folks that should be forced to own their intentional myopia… probably won’t:

“These statistics are appalling. Since 1994, we’ve had the technology to deliver the internet to every household in America, but we’ve never mustered the will to make it so. Almost three decades later, we’ve learned two important lessons: one, having the internet at home is not a luxury, but a necessity for modern life; and two, market forces will never close this gap. Now is the time to change this reality, for good, by eliminating every barrier facing communities who want to take action to ensure that broadband is in every home.”

We’ve thrown endless billions at U.S. telecom giants for a rotating crop of fiber networks that were, time and time again, never delivered. Not that we’d ever do one, but I’d wager any audit of U.S. telecom subsidization would find we should have collectively been able to deploy fiber to every home in America several times over based on what American taxpayers have shelled out for so far.

There’s long been a chasm between telecom policy and reality, and its never been more stark. Ajit Pai, for example, has spent three years insisting that “curing the digital divide” was his top priority. Yet time after time his policies have made the pricing and availability problem worse, whether it’s pretending there is no competition or price problem (you’ll rarely hear him acknowledge either), gutting FCC authority, refusing to police outright ISP billing fraud, or eliminating consumer billing fraud protections.

Crappy U.S. broadband is caused by two things: corrupt, feckless governments and a lack of meaningful competition among entrenched monopolies. Either you give a shit about fixing these problems or you don’t. Either way, it’s a problem that shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to finally take seriously.

Filed Under: broadband, competition, digital divide, fcc

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