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The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) set aside $42.5 billion for states to spend on expanding access to affordable broadband. But state by state, telecom lobbyists are working hard to ensure that this money only goes to “unserved” places and cannot be used to potentially create competition in the markets they already serve.
Last month, we noted how states like Illinois, at the direct request of companies like AT&T, have imposed restrictions on who can or cannot access these funds. This includes blocking certain cooperatives or local governments from building broadband networks. As expressly prohibited by the IIJA, these states risk any broadband funding
In other cases, it’s a little more subtle than that. Missouri, for example, just passed a bill (again directly demanded by AT&T) stating that “no federal funds received by the state, political subdivision, city, town, or village will be spent on building retail broadband Internet infrastructure unless the project to be built is located in an unserved or underserved area.
At first glance, this does not seem controversial. But if you know how the U.S. telecommunications industry and policy actually works, its intent becomes clearer. The bill does not just block funding for areas already served, it blocks access to projects in areas that incumbent ISPs claim they could be used one day:
the current version of the bill would allow incumbent ISPs to block federal funding to competitors if they vaguely indicate that they have a possible interest in upgrading an area. Historically, state and federal regulators loyal to regional monopolies have been inconsistent about tracking fiber rollout promises, which could perpetuate long-standing internet access coverage gaps.
So basically, if you’re trying to get a grant to help fund a new broadband project in Missouri, you need to get permission from the regional monopoly. This monopoly may promise that an area is already on the upgrade schedule, but because state and federal telecom regulators can rarely be bothered to follow through on promises or punish telecom giants for empty promises, it all is largely for show.
American broadband is not only plagued by a lack of to accesshe suffers from a lack of affordability through monopolization and lack of competition. The telecom giants (who like to rack up billions in subsidies for rural broadband rollouts that consistently fail to materialize) are very fond of policy models that focus exclusively on the former, for reasons that should be obvious.
Here’s the other problem: US broadband cards suck. Big telecoms know they suck and have fought tooth and nail against improving them, because it would only further highlight monopolization and limited competition, giving more incentive to lawmakers to do something about both. As such, our definitions of “unserved” and “underserved” are already sadly broken, by design.
When a community applies for a federal grant to improve local broadband access, then they will regularly face arbitrary and costly challenges from incumbent ISPs, who will then point to data that they know is underestimating the magnitude of the problem, to declare that these broadband improvements are “redundant” and unnecessary. For many States, meeting these challenges is technically or financially impossible.
Add in the growing number of state restrictions on how funding can be used (in stark contrast to federal rules), and you’ll begin to see the level of shenanigans going on to keep money from funding beneficial competition. Ironically, this will happen most often in GOP-controlled states by lawmakers who have recently professed a superficial interest in “antitrust reform.”
So while there’s $42.5 billion in IIJA funding (and billions more in COVID relief funding) aimed at improving American citizens’ access to affordable broadband , big telecoms have started to exploit state regulatory capture to make sure money doesn’t go to (gasp) competitors who might force them to (double gasp) charge more reasonable rates.
This will be the norm in much of the country for the next few years, and it will be interesting to see how federal policymakers oppose states, clearly largely interested in AT&T and Comcast campaign contributions, seeking to erase the funding process. to the benefit of the holder.
Filed Under: affordability, broadband, competition, digital divide, fcc, high speed internet, infrastructure, missouri, ntia, states, telecom