ISP announces 86% slowdown “in line with others”
The surging anti-monopoly movement has been greeted with skepticism from the left, some of whom suspect the whole thing is merely fetishizing competition for its own sake, irrespective of whether competing businesses produce value for their workers, communities and customers.
There’s certainly an element of the economic world that sees competition and market forces as a cure-all, jumping through farcical hoops to push pro-competitive policies to the exclusion of safety, quality and labor regulation.
But sometimes, competition really does solve problems — and even more often, a lack of competition creates problems.
That’s definitely the case for broadband, a “natural monopoly” that has been left to the private sector, who have colluded to avoid competition, allowing them to underinvest in capital expenditure and overcharge for sub-par service.
That’s why America, the birthplace of the internet, has some of the slowest, most expensive broadband in the rich world, which was bad enough before the lockdown turned broadband into a lifeline for education, health, employment, family life, politics and civics.
Now, as the lockdowns lift across the US, there’s credible proposals for public broadband infrastructure. In many places, public broadband will be the only service available, thanks to monopolists’ neglect of rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods.
In other places, publicly provided broadband will compete with monopolists’ offerings, forcing lazy, incompetent companies to up their game — both in hiring technicians and in providing good, fairly priced service:
Man, does America need this. To see just how cursed American broadband is, look no further than Altice USA, America’s fourth-largest cable operator. Altice just notified customers that it is slashing its upload speeds by 86%, effective next month.
Altice insists that there is no operational reason for this: there is no upload congestion on its network, no problems created by allowing its customers to participate actively in digital life rather than a passive mouse-potato “consumer.”
(Upload speeds determine whether you can be a Twitch streamer, participate in videoconferences, or produce and upload ambitious multimedia materials like videos; download speeds determine how fast other people and big corporations can shovel their ideas into your eyeballs)
So why is Altice slashing upload speeds? To be “in line with other ISPs.” In other words, “The rest of the industry is fucking awful, so why should we be any better?”
This is jaw-droppingly perverse logic — and a neat parable about the problems of market-based service provision without competition. It’s not always the case that competition sends corporations on a race to the top — but for-profit monopolies always race to the bottom.
As “Cowboy Economist” John T Harvey likes to say, competitive markets can be a tool to produce good outcomes, where they fit. The problem with neoliberal ideologues isn’t that they think markets are sometimes good — it’s that they think non-market systems are always bad.
An economist who thinks that any problem that can’t be solved with markets should remain unsolved is as weird as a carpenter who declares that only screw-fasteners are righteous and that nailing materials together is immoral and should be prohibited.
Public broadband provision is a no-brainer, just like electrification and interstates — essential public goods that required large-scale, muscular government intervention to weld the nation together and propel it into the future.
The experiment of creating private broadband monopolies has been tried, and it failed. America is full of broadband deserts.
Even if you’re lucky enough to get broadband, chances are it will be run by a perverse monopolist like Altice, who cuts service because they don’t want you to get used to nice things.
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.