Culture War Bullshit Stole Your Broadband
So, the next time you complain about your phone service, why don’t you try using two Dixie cups with a string? We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the Phone Company. — Lily Tomlin, The Phone Company
The internet is an American invention. It exists thanks to US public dollars that were showered on military contractors, with a little incidental spillover onto America’s institutes of higher learning.
54 years after the first Arpanet demo, America is an also-ran in the global internet league tables. Americans pay more for slower broadband than their counterparts, whether that’s in wealthy countries of the global north, or looted post-colonial nations in the global south.
This matters because the internet isn’t a mere pornography distribution system, nor a tool of extremist radicalization, nor a glorified video-on-demand service —nor any of the other dismissive epithets used to minimize the consequences of America’s worst-in-class internet service.
The internet is a single wire that delivers free speech, a free press, free assembly, access to education, civics, health care, community, politics, family, employment and even romance.
And America’s internet is terrible.
This mattered even in the Great Before, but after the pandemic struck and the lockdowns began, the real consequences of America’s failing internet became much harder to deny.
Where I live — in spitting distance of the studio headquarters of Warners, Universal and Disney — video and sound editors found themselves downloading and uploading massive media files over achingly slow copper broadband provided by AT&T or Charter. Eventually, a 90 year old local gadfly took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal shaming AT&T for its trailing-edge technology:
If things were bad for sound and video editors, they were even more dire for children living America’s numerous “broadband deserts,” like the kids who attended Zoom school in the local Taco Bell parking lot because their homes were digitally redlined out of coverage.
Apologists for America’s internet-of-garbage will tell you that all of this can’t be avoided. America is too big, its rural communities are too spread out, its infrastructure is too old.
Hundreds of American small towns have built their own fiber networks, mostly in deep red counties in deep red states. Far from living in Stalinist broadband hellscapes, these rural Americans whose broadband comes from their local government are the only people in America who are happy with their broadband.
There is no place too rural for public broadband: the poorest county in Appalachia pulled fiber to every home, including the ones beyond narrow mountain passes (they used a mule called Ol Bub to make those runs!), and experienced an economic miracle.
As good as American cities and towns are at providing fiber, the private sector is very bad at it. When Frontier went bankrupt during the lockdown, their filings revealed that they deliberately withheld fiber from 3,000,000 households, despite projecting one billion in additional profits, because the investment would take a decade to mature (telco analysts downrank the stock of operators who make long-term investments).
Frontier also booked 1,000,000 households in broadband deserts as “assets” because the company knew those subscribers had no alternative, which meant Frontier could provide worse service at higher costs while cutting their maintenance budgets (Frontier’s “installation” methodology involved draping its lines over shrubs or wedging them into tree-branches).
As bad as the private sector is at providing broadband, it is absolutely brilliant at corrupting the political process. Cities that so much as ponder providing decent broadband are beset by “grassroots” activists who are spittin’ mad at the idea of having reliable, low-cost internet. More often than not, these are really astroturf groups, fake activists in the employ of big cable and telephone companies. The whole bestiary of shadowy conservative billionaires get in on this — even the Kochs.
Increasingly, though, conservative turkeys are being convinced to vote for Christmas, demanding their inalienable right to be fleeced by monopolists.
How do you convince conservatives to vote against decent internet at a decent price? The same way you convince conservatives to do anything:
You tell them it’s woke.
Under Trump, we had FCC commissioners who falsely claimed that municipal broadband would censor conservative voices. This isn’t merely untrue, it’s radioactively wrong: in fact, the only ISPs in America that aren’t allowed to block content on the basis of its viewpoint are the publicly owned ones, thanks to our good old pal, the First Amendment.
Low-information culture-warriors have carried water for cable and telco monopolists for years, even as their situation degraded. 100 million Americans live in places where every ISP has violated Net Neutrality, and rural Americans now overwhelmingly live in deadzones where the normal duopoly of cable/DSL has been replaced by a cable-only monopoly.
In the face of this rapid deterioration, telecoms monopolists have had to invent new ways to gin up fury and hold improvement at bay.
Which brings me to Gigi Sohn.
When Biden took office, he nominated Gigi Sohn to serve as an FCC commissioner. Sohn is a telecoms legend, the co-founder of the nonpartisan think-tank Public Knowledge, where she served for many years as executive director. Few people are as knowledgeable or committed as Sohn, and it would be hard to find someone better qualified to serve on the FCC without recruiting an executive from the telecoms industry, as Trump and Obama did.
Sohn was eminently qualified to serve on the FCC, and there was no mystery as to who she would serve in that role: the American people, especially those who have been abused, forgotten or underserved by Big Telco and Big Cable, from digitally redlined inner-city to rural broadband deserts.
So the monopolists went to work. For sixteen months, they successfully lobbied the Senate to block her confirmation hearing. Not her confirmation — just the hearing. Over $23 million in telco money flowed into the Senate over this period, and that was just the start.
The ISPs also went to work on the frothing culture warriors of the American right, smearing Sohn as a “groomer” and an “anti-police radical.” They ran a homophobic smear campaign against Sohn, who is gay, and condemned her for her work as a volunteer board member with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, on the grounds that EFF opposes unconstitutional digital police surveillance and campaigned against SESTA/FOSTA, a law that has put sex-workers in grave physical danger while doing nothing to accomplish its nominal goal of preventing sex-trafficking (disclosure: I am a Special Advisor to EFF and am proud to have worked with them for over 21 years).
It worked. This month, Sohn withdrew herself from the FCC nomination, with a scorching public letter damning the politicians, commissioners and lobbyists who worked to keep her from being seated:
Last night after discussions with my family and careful consideration, I made the decision to ask President Biden to withdraw my nomination to the Federal Communications Commission. When I accepted his nomination over sixteen months ago, I could not have imagined that legions of cable and media industry lobbyists, their bought-and-paid-for surrogates, and dark money political groups with bottomless pockets would distort my over 30-year history as a consumer advocate into an absurd caricature of blatant lies. The unrelenting, dishonest and cruel attacks on my character and my career as an advocate for the public interest have taken an enormous toll on me and my family.
Sohn’s FCC seat wasn’t stolen by conservatives alone — they had help from the Democratic party. Writing for the Daily Dot, Karl Bode explains why there’s plenty of blame to go around:
- President Biden: delayed Sohn’s nomination for nine months;
- Democratic committee leaders: failed to whip members for key votes and caved to GOP demands for stupid, uninformed “hearings” where they hung Sohn out to dry;
- Senate Leader Chuck Schumer: a consistent lack of urgency for Sohn’s nomination;
- Three Democratic Senators, Mark Kelly (AZ), Catherine Cortez Masto (NV), and Joe Manchin (WV): Opposed Sohn’s nomination;
- Three more Democratic Senators, Jacky Rosen (NV), Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) and Jon Tester (MT): Blocked Sohn’s nomination from being voted out of committee;
- Former Democratic Senator turned ISP lobbyist Heidi Heitkamp: Ran a false smear campaign claiming Sohn didn’t care about rural internet users.
The Democratic complicity with the GOP’s war on Sohn will have enormous, long-term consequences for the American people. With the FCC deadlocked with two GOP appointees and two Democrats, it is completely neutralized, unable to make any new policy so long as that fifth seat is empty.
That kills enforcement action against ISPs and telcos who stole and sold Americans’ location data, against ISPs and telcos who lied about providing broadband for low-income communities; and against cable industry junk fees.
As Bode points out, Sohn’s nomination debacle makes for a stark contrast with the confirmation process for Nathan Simington, an unqualified partisan hack who sailed through the Senate like shit through a goose, from nomination to confirmation in a mere 28 days.
Biden’s signature achievement is his infrastructure bill, which provides $45 billion in broadband subsidies. Without a functional FCC to administer and safeguard these funds, the best we can hope for is that they’ll sit in limbo — while the worst is that they’ll be sucked into the maws of the telcos and cable operators, who will send the bulk to their monopoly-gorged shareholders, retaining a few billion to further corrupt our politics.
And Americans will continue to enjoy some of the worst, most expensive broadband in the world, right here in the country where the internet was invented.
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 Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. 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 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).