The FCC Just Made It Harder For Poor, Rural Communities To Get Internet
While everyone was pitching a fit about data privacy, the FCC was rolling back broadband subsidies that benefit low-income families
When Ajit Pai announced back in December that he would take a “weed whacker” to regulations as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, consumer advocates in the cable industry braced themselves. Since its inception in 1934, the FCC has been criticized for its laissez-faire approach to the exploitive billing practices and corporate strong-arm tactics of telecommunication giants like AT&T and Comcast. How much worse could it get? The answer- it can always be worse. Always. Pai hit the ground running, rolling back protections and abandoning pending legislation on new FCC regulations. And last week, his weed whacker finally struck a nerve.
Consumers collectively gasped. Suddenly, somebody was looking over our shoulder and not only could they see all the terrible things we ask Google, but now they could sell it to the highest bidder for nefarious uses. We felt violated. Profiled. Exposed.
Internet outrage exploded.
Here’s the thing, though. This isn’t anything new. The FCC simply voted not to enforce rules that were passed under the previous FCC chairman. Technically, your ISP could have sold your data before, probably to hungry advertising corporations who are eager to find novel and invasive ways of targeting consumers. Facebook and Google already do this to some extent. It’s unlikely that anyone’s individual internet browsing history would have been up for sale, although a million Crowdfunding scams might try to convince you otherwise.
Keep your eye on the ball, folks.
Because out of all the egregious things Ajit Pai has been up to for the last few weeks, letting your ISP sell private data is just the tip of the iceberg. And if you want to talk long-term consequences, it’s the one you should be least worried about. The new FCC chairman is paving the way for unprecedented greed in an industry that’s already the poster-child for corporatocracy (we’re looking at you, Comcast). And while his efforts appear to be in the spirit of good ole capitalism, Chairman Pai’s approach looks insidious when you consider one important thing: the digital divide.
The digital divide is a term that refers to the disparity between not only those who can afford internet and those who can’t, but the rural communities that simply don’t have access to broadband. And when you began digging into internet infrastructure in this country, you’ll find it closely correlates with voter participation. There are lots of reasons for this and they all lie at the crossroads of demographics that sound familiar. Urban vs. rural, educated vs. blue-collar, wealthy vs. poor. But it boils down to this.
States with better, faster internet have better voter turnout. And those same states tend to lean left. Take a look.
Yep. Every state in the top 10 for internet speed in the United States, except Utah, went blue in the last election. And with the exception of Maine and New Mexico, every state in the bottom 10 for internet speed went Republican. While this seems like a compelling correlation, keep in mind that internet speed is also closely related to demographics like education, income, and population density. Those same factors determine political leanings to a large extent. As The Atlantic pointed out recently, politics in this country is less about red and blue than it is about urban vs. rural values.
The United States doesn’t even crack the top ten in average internet speed in the world. Nearly one-third of American households have no choice in internet provider. Once you dip into the bottom 20% for median household income, you’ll find more than half of those homes have no internet access at all. This becomes a pivotal component of the achievement gap in America. Hundreds of thousands of kids can’t complete their homework, falling farther and farther behind in school. Parents are unable to search for employment or stay informed. The elderly can’t research insurance or get the community assistance and support they need. The United Nations declared access to internet a basic human right almost a decade ago, and America still struggles to provide it to the majority of its poorest and underserved communities.
Ajit Pai claims he wants to expand internet access in America and bridge the digital divide. But his actions stand in stark contrast to that. Let’s take a look at the cable industry’s new bestie and how the current administration’s efforts to deregulate all the things leaves rural communities behind.
Ushering in the Big Chill on Competition
It’s well known that lack of competition in the marketplace usually leads to exploitive practices and unfair pricing. Never fear, America. Pai has a plan. One of the first things the new FCC chairman did when he rolled into town on his deregulation bus was hand out 170 million in government subsidies for a program he’s affectionately calling Connect America Phase 2. Catchy name. But what exactly is it?
Connect America began under Obama in 2015 as a program to expand internet access in over 27 cities, reaching an additional quarter million low-income families. Pai plans to usher in a new phase of the program, chopping up sections of underserved parts of the country and auctioning them off to the highest bidding Internet Service Provider for development. It sounds like a win-win. More people get internet access and ISPs get a little extra cash for investment in infrastructure.
There’s just on teensy problem. The rules are rigged and skew the competition towards larger corporate providers with the necessary infrastructure already in place to meet speed thresholds. And it gives those providers a ten-year lock on those communities, effectively strangling competition from local providers and smaller ISPs.
Additionally, Chairman Pai has signaled he won’t be supporting muni-networks as his predecessor did. Municipal networks are instances in which cities have funded the infrastructure to build out their own internet service, buying peerage directly from a Tier 1 provider to supply faster internet to the community as a utility. Many smaller cities that have invested in this sort of approach, like Chattanooga, otherwise known as “Gig City,” have seen a big boost to their economy, diversity , and population as a result. Chairman Pai has indicated that he sees these types of networks as unfair to the competitive marketplace, so it’s unlikely he’ll support judicial efforts to overturn state legislation that prohibits these types of networks.
Sorry, struggling backwoods cities and suburbs. You’re on your own now.
Shifting Blame Back to the States
In addition to squelching competition, Chairman Pai has been busy tinkering with another broadband program. Lifeline serves over 3.5 million people and is supported by 259 providers nationwide, delivering a $9.25 monthly credit to support essential communication services to the poor. Last year, the program was expanded to include broadband in the definition of essential services. Pai has graciously left those broadband subsidies in place. But there’s a catch.
The FCC had mandated that providers could apply directly to the government agency to participate in this program. Chairman Pai believes this is a gross “overreach” of federal power. He has canceled the pending applications for nine providers who had already submitted the necessary paperwork through the FCC’s new process. Moving forward, all applications will be approved by the states.
Probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, right? Until you realize that rather than applying and being approved to give service nationally to customers under this government subsidized program, providers will need to apply individually to each state. That’s right. All fifty. And most states don’t currently even have an application process in place. If it sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare, it is. One most companies won’t opt to participate in.
You get a merger. You get a merger. Everybody gets a merger!
Back in 2014, when Comcast suggested they might like to merge with Time Warner Cable, the internet lost its mind. Dubbed “The United States of Comcast” because it would have made the telecommunications company the top provider in a whopping 26 states, the proposed merger raised such a widespread battle cry that it was eventually abandoned.
In 2016, Charter came calling for TWC and this time, the FCC said yes. But Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman at the time, had some pretty big stipulations. Charter would not be allowed to use any usage based billing practices (translation: no data caps) and the company would be required to expand services to a certain number of low-income and rural subscribers to foster more competition. While consumer advocates weren’t thrilled with another telecommunications conglomerate, there was general admiration for Tom Wheeler’s efforts to address systemic abuse in the industry. Chairman Pai has indicated he won’t be enforcing those stipulations, calling the efforts to expand access “overbuilding” into competing territories.
In late 2016, AT&T began nibbling around the edges of a potential acquisition of Time Warner Studios. The response was hardly encouraging. Tom Wheeler viewed the deal as a poorly concealed effort to circumvent net neutrality rules and the FCC positioned itself for a fight. Then the election came. And in the aftermath, AT&T smiled and nodded and commented that they weren’t too worried about the future of their little proposal to be both a content and service provider. Chairman Pai took the helm and made it clear that the only monopoly he was worried about was the kind that involved a get out of jail free card. AT&T and Time Warner’s merger is expected to be approved and the FCC has signaled they will not be involved in advocating or opposing the deal.
This is bad news, kids. Very, very bad news.
So far, despite some pretty big talk about bringing internet to underserved communities, the new FCC’s chair has made it more difficult for rural areas and poor people to get the technology they need to participate in the 21st century. And that’s bad news for everyone. Because despite the perceived urgency of personal privacy concerns, an uneducated, poor, and isolated population has a long lasting effect on the dynamics and economy of a country.
In the 2016 election, a puzzling thing occurred. Okay. Several really confusing things happened but let’s just focus on this one for now. A candidate won a large section of the vote in rural America campaigning on a message of fear of difference and isolationism. But this message didn’t resonate in cities that had actually experienced real acts of terror on American soil. While the residents of Boston and New York have suffered deep and devastating loss at the hands of radicals, and arguably the worst humanity has to offer, they also get to see the best of humanity. New Yorkers and Bostonites see difference every day. Riding the subway, in the grocery store, picking up their kids at school. Urban dwellers see people who look different, but move through their lives just the same, caring for their families and their communities and working hard to earn a life worth living.
Rural communities don’t get that experience and it shows. In the way they see the global economy as a threat or refugees as potential terrorists. And as technology advances and the economy thrives, these sleepy towns and back road counties get left behind. If we’d like poor communities to have more opportunities and to feel more connected to a larger, more diverse world, we’ll need to give them the tools.
And that starts with delivering something better than dial-up.
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