Having covered telecom for twenty years, I’ve found there’s a good shortcut to determining if somebody’s really serious about fixing US broadband issues: can they admit that (1) monopolies exist, and (2) that this results in a lack of competition. The data is indisputable on this point. US broadband is heavily monopolized, and as a result is mediocre on nearly every metric that matters, whether we’re talking about availability, speed, price, or customer service.
And yet, there’s a parade of lawmakers, regulators (like former FCC boss Ajit Pai), think tankers and others who are, for either financial or rigid ideological reasons, still incapable of acknowledging that reality. As a result, they can’t really fix the problem.
Take the lion’s share of the GOP, for example. The party just spent four years gutting most meaningful oversight of America’s broken broadband sector under the completely false claim that this would somehow result in monopolies like AT&T and Comcast doing a better job, expanding access, and boosting overall network investment. That simply never happened, and anybody claiming otherwise is lying to you.
Now, with Covid shining a bright light on the essential nature of broadband, the GOP has been forced to at least pretend they care about the problem. As a result, they’ve ushered forth a series of bills professing to “bridge the digital divide.” Not too surprisingly, not a single bill acknowledges that private sector monopolization, limited competition, or high prices are even a problem.
Instead, the focus of all of the GOP’s bills are focused exclusively on placing the blame entirely on the back of local governments. And while governments can sometimes be a pain in the ass to work with (not that working with Verizon, AT&T or Comcast is any real treat for governments either), the problem at this point isn’t really local government. We’ve spent twenty years hamstringing local government authority and giving all the power to incumbent private players through a litany of policy. And the result has been: precisely the shitty, Comcast-dominated market we all know and love. “More of that,” is not a serious solution.
Yes, there’s the occasional example where cumbersome regulatory underbrush could still be cleared out, or common sense policies to speed up deployment could be enacted (like “dig once” legislation requiring fiber or conduit be run alongside any new highway bill). But again, the real problem isn’t local government when it comes to US broadband. The real problem is regional monopolists so politically powerful that nobody on the state or federal level, often from either party, has the backbone to stand up to them. The result is a mish-mash of ass kissing dressed up as real policy.
In fact, one of the bills, Missouri Rep. Billy Long’s Communities Over regulating Networks Need Economic Competition Today 6 Act, (pdf) actively tries to ban communities from building their own networks. As we’ve noted, such networks are an organic, grass roots reaction to obvious market failure, and they’ve proven to be invaluable during the pandemic. Not only do they deliver some of the fastest speeds in the country, they’re a novel way to force lazy incumbent monopolists to try harder.
The Act title makes no coherent sense, as the bill would hinder, not encourage, competition. There are, of course, already twenty odd state laws, literally written by AT&T or Comcast, that hamstring community broadband. The industry has spent years trying to push for a federal ban on such local networks, for no other reason than they would harm AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, or Charter’s bloated revenues.
Usually, these bans are piggybacked on the false claim that such community networks are an inevitable taxpayer boondoggle. Yet, not coincidentally, you’ll never see these folks complain when AT&T is given a $42 billion tax cut in exchange for absolutely nothing. They similarly have nothing to say when billions are doled out to regional monopolies that repeatedly fail to deliver those networks. Not a peep.
One sad and frustrating aspect of America is how little it costs a company like AT&T to buy proposed legislation. For telecom giants, it’s easier to give somebody like Billy Long $60,000 in PAC donations than to upgrade their networks in lower ROI areas (despite billions in tax breaks and subsidies to that end).
Real solutions for US broadband problems start with the understanding that monopolization and corruption are the reasons US broadband sucks. If you can’t do that, you’re not actually interested in solving the problem, you’re engaged in performative fluff and nonsense. Either because you don’t actively understand the market you’re talking about, or you’re working, indirectly or not, to help entrenched monopolists preserve the status quo.