Competition tames ISPs
How living on the wrong side of the street can cost you thousands of dollars.
Broadband policy isn’t the most important policy question we face, but it is in many ways the most foundational one. The lockdown showed us that good broadband is key to civics, politics, education, health, family life, romance, and employment.
Unfortunately for America, governments have treated broadband as a glorified video-on-demand service (at best) and a pornography distribution system (at worst).
American lawmakers sat idly by as cable and phone companies divided up the nation into non-competing territories, leaving Americans with some of the slowest broadband at the highest prices in the country.
To the extent that they treated this as a problem, the “solutions” they offered were all predicated on the idea that monopoly telecom profits should take precedence over fast, reasonably priced, universal access to broadband.
Rather than breakups, or merger scrutiny, or municipal fiber, US lawmakers and regulators offered industry subsidies, tax breaks, deregulation — and state bans on cities offering municipal broadband, even in places that the monopoly carriers refused to serve.
Implicit — and often explicit — in this failure was the theory that the cable and phone companies were terrible because the industry was Just Hard and America Is Different, and that the terrible state of affairs had nothing to do with monopoly.
A post by Stop the Cap reveals the hollowness of this proposition, showing that people who live on opposite sides of the street can see $40/month difference in their broadband bills, based on whether Spectrum has to compete for their business.
Beyond monthly rates, the post breaks down a whole string of ripoffs that Charter visits upon its monopoly customers, like $200 installation fees — while someone a block away pays only $50.
When Ars Technica called Charter on this, the company responded that its pricing is “affected by several factors, including ‘location.’” Uh, yeah — because people in some locations have options, while others don’t.
Obviously, this is no surprise. When Frontier went bankrupt in 2020, its mandated disclosures confirmed that the company’s internal accounting treated the 1m people who had no alternative as an “asset” because they’d pay more and settle for less.
As Karl Bode writes on Techdirt, the cable operators’ use of “contract length, promotional rates, and fees” obfuscates some of the ways that monopoly gets exploited, the truth isn’t that hard to see.
But maybe the lockdown will reverse American complacency on broadband monopoly. Biden’s FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has issued a public call for your horror stories about your experience with broadband.
And in California, Gavin Newsom has proposed a well-funded, comprehensive, universal fiber rollout that deserves your support:
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 The Shakedown (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; and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias.