All (Broadband) Politics Are Local
“We’re the phone company, we don’t care.” -Lily Tomlin
Even before the lockdown, we all hated our ISPs. Comcast routinely won “worst company in America” polls. AT&T was a trash-fire of endless boondoggles and scandals. Verizon charged you $12/month to rent a modem, and also charged you $12/month to not rent a modem. Everyone hated Frontier for its slow speeds, which were revealed to be the result of the company’s practice of “installing” phone lines by tying them to trees with twine or draping them over shrubs. New York State ordered Charter/Spectrum to leave the state and never come back.
Then the pandemic struck, and terrible internet service became a matter of survival: it was how your kids went to school, how you visited the doctor, how you saw family, how you participated in civics and politics, and, for those of us who were lucky enough to have remote-capable jobs, how you earned your living.
The dismal state of the American telecoms industry, where monopolies divided up the country into non-competing exclusive territories like Pope Alexander VI dividing up the “New World,” suddenly became a lot more important.
The carriers didn’t give a shit. The feds showered them in billions, buying up their junk bonds and writing fat checks for PPP loans. Telco execs paid themselves bonuses and helped out their shareholders with massive stock buybacks.
But for workers and subscribers, it was a very different story. Charter-Spectrum’s CEO Thomas Rutledge (an asshole) paid himself the highest salary of any US CEO, while refusing to pay for his technicians’ PPE or hand sanitizer. In lieu of hazard pay, the installers who came to our homes were given coupons to eat at restaurants that had shuttered for the lockdown. Charter-Spectrum’s back office staff — who could have done their jobs from home — were required to go into work lest they goof off on company time. Charter-Spectrum offices became superspreader sites.
White-collar workers whose bosses would let them work from home struggled, thanks to the carriers’ unwillingness to maintain or improve their infrastructure. In Hollywood and Burbank, film industry types were hamstrung by crawling “broadband” speeds that wouldn’t let them download and upload their work files. Eventually, a 90-year-old local resident shamed AT&T into providing decent service by taking out an ad in the Wall Street Journal, shaming the company for its gouging and underinvestment.
For the working poor — the “essential workers” — it was far worse. These Americans are likely to live in “broadband deserts” that follow the old redlining demarcations that were established by the racist housing policies of the previous century. These people — overwhelming Black and brown —often had no broadband, which is how their kids ended up going to Zoom school from the parking lot of the local Taco Bell.
Like I say, none of this is new. AT&T was allowed to go on abusing the American public for 68 years between its first antitrust investigation and its eventual breakup. Everyone hates their ISP, for good reason.
It’s not like we don’t know how to do broadband well. Hundreds of small communities set up their own fiber loops and either ran them themselves or set up wholesale operations that let multiple companies compete to provide service. These are the only people in America who like their ISPs (well, along with those lucky few who can get their broadband from great local fiber providers like Ting).
No wonder that the telecoms lobby convinced more than 20 states to pass laws banning municipal fiber.
Things are changing. Finally, there is political will to do something about telecoms monopolies. The pandemic, combined with the surging antimonopoly movement, has turned universal fiber into a politically attainable goal.
Note that I said universal fiber. Not 5G (which requires extensive fiber, and is far slower than a fiber link). Not satellite service (which gets slower every time it adds a customer).
To hear telco apologists and Elon Musk fanboys tell it, running fiber to rural homes is impossible. It’s as though the people who connected these homes to the electric grid, water mains, and telephone network did so using some vanished art lost to the mists of history.
Bullshit. We know how to run fiber. Hell, the poorest county in Appalachia got fiber into every single home, using a mule named “Ole Bub” to get through the mountain passes. The result was an economic miracle, with substantial rises in the county’s median wage.
The only thing preventing fiber from being economically viable is the impatience of telecoms shareholders. Prior to its bankruptcy, Frontier concluded that they could clear a billion-dollar profit over a decade by connecting millions of families to fiber, but they left that billion on the table because the analysts who control the share prices of telcos threatened to tank their stock if they made capital expenditures that took more than five years to turn a profit.
With low-cost, patient capital, fiber installations break even at densities as low as 2.5 people per square mile.
All we need to get universal fiber is patient capital, and now we have it. The Infrastructure Bill allocated $65 billion to subsidize fiber rollouts across America, with some funds especially earmarked for underserved and rural areas.
In California, these funds are supplemented by further billions in grants, a “middle-mile network” to join up county and town networks, as well as low-cost loans and technical assistance to help towns build and maintain their own fiber networks.
The statutes that make this funding available are designed to avoid the capture that has turned previous efforts to create universal fiber access into expensive boondoggles that enriched telco monopolists (like the $45 billion in public funds that was wasted in running obsolete copper wiring to rural homes).
The federal project of getting America truly online, with symmetrical, universal, gigabit+ fiber is part of a long tradition. The federal government built the country’s electric and telephone system by sending grants, loans and expertise to rural co-ops, many of which are still around today (the Appalachian org that got Ole Bub to wire up every mountain pass is a co-op that was originally founded as part of the New Deal electrification push).
But the federal government can only do so much. Most of the fiber subsidy is in the form of grants to states, who have to accept that money and use it. States whose leadership has been captured by telco monopolists are going to be under enormous pressure to turn down broadband funds and leave their people with 20th century tin-can-and-string copper networks.
We need to counter that pressure. Residents of every state need to call their state legislators and demand participation in this universal broadband. Despite GOP rhetoric about “keeping government out of broadband,” every broadband provider is absolutely dependent on federal, state and local handouts for its existence. What’s more, the towns with municipal fiber swing both Democrat and Republic, and they all rhapsodize about the service.
In states like California where the state government is providing low-cost loans and grants to towns and counties, those local governments need to get an earful from their constituents about the need to take the state up on its offer.
The good news is that state and local legislators are far more responsive to constituent pressure than members of the federal Congress and Senate. A few minutes with your search engine will turn up the time and Zoom link for your next town hall meeting. These all have five-minute public comment periods. Calling up and giving your local government an earful about the economic and political benefits of kicking out the bloodsucking monopolists and replacing them with well-run fiber will make a difference — especially if you follow it up with emails to each counselor.
This is one of those rare moments where individual action can make a huge, lasting difference. All the pieces are coming together for a new broadband future for the nation, one where public provision and management ends decades of gouging, underinvestment and naked contempt from the universally loathed (and loathsome) telecoms sector.
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).