New COVID Bill Includes Billions To Shore Up Broadband Access. But…

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

It’s generally understood that the latest Congressional COVID relief package is the policy equivalent of a band-aid on a lost limb, and the $600 being doled out to struggling American families is a joke (especially compared with international public aid efforts). We’re also only just starting to take inventory of how much padding and nonsense is buried in the bill that couldn’t be shoveled through standalone bills.

But the bill did include a few helpful measures, including $7 billion to help shore up America’s affordable broadband problem. $3.2 billion of that money will be aimed at keeping working families connected to the internet in a country where toddlers have had to huddle in the dirt outside of fast food restaurants just so they can attend class.

The bill provides a $50 a month emergency broadband benefit for anyone laid off or furloughed during the pandemic. Details are still forthcoming, but I’m assuming the effort will be built on the back of Lifeline, a low-income program begun by Reagan and expanded by Bush Junior, which currently provides a measly $9.25 monthly subsidy low-income families have to spend on broadband, phone, or wireless service. You know, the program Trump FCC boss Ajit Pai has repeatedly tried to kneecap despite it having broad, bipartisan support for decades.

Early reports indicate the bill also includes $1 billion in grants for Tribal broadband programs, $300 million for rural broadband deployment, $285 million to fund a pilot program to shore up broadband issues for communities near Black colleges and universities, and $65 million to help improve the FCC’s notoriously shaky broadband availability maps.

These are all indisputably good things. Especially during a public health and economic crisis that has highlighted why broadband is essential for survival and opportunity. Something reflected in a statement by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden:

“Broadband connections are essential for Americans seeking to get new jobs, and to access school, health care and other government services. Ensuring working families can stay online will pay massive dividends for kids’ education, helping people find jobs and jump starting the economic recovery next year.”

But, as we’ve noted more than a few times, simply throwing more money at the U.S. broadband affordability and availability problem isn’t going to fix it. Why? Because the problem has historically been corruption. The problem has been that a bunch of politically powerful telecom juggernauts (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter) have divided up the country into regional monopolies, then employ an army of lobbyists, think tankers, academics, consultants, lawmakers, and regulators whose entire function is to pretend this hasn’t happened or isn’t a problem.

State and federal policymakers and lawmakers are so corrupt, we literally, repeatedly, let telecom monopolies write state and federal telecom law and policy. Proposals that, time and time again, are focused on hamstringing competition, undermining any creative attempt to disrupt the status quo, and undermining regulators tasked with protecting consumers and expanding affordable access.

Subsidies can certainly be helpful. But without fixing the underlying corruption, you’re never going to fix the real problem. Our broadband maps suck because incumbent lobbyists repeatedly scuttle efforts at better maps. Broadband access is still spotty after decades of efforts because we keep throwing billions at monopolies in exchange for fiber networks routinely only half deployed (routinely with no serious penalties). Consumers suffer from high prices because our telecom regulator is a glorified rubber stamp for AT&T and Comcast and views things like consumer protection as an unnecessary hassle. Competitors and innovation suffers because regulators can’t even admit the broadband sector isn’t competitive.

So yeah, well-considered subsidization can certainly be helpful, and the $50 low income vouchers in particular can go a long way to helping slightly offset the issue. And the fact we got anything through this corrupt Congress is something to be thankful for. But the core issue remains monopolization and corruption, a problem the government isn’t even capable of acknowledging half the time, much less offering meaningful solutions for. Until that changes, spotty, expensive broadband with abysmal customer service is going to be the norm, and subsidization will be a band-aid, not a fix.

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Filed Under: broadband, covid, covid relief, digital divide