Public Policy and Broadband

The FCC just announced that US broadband is failing to meet the requirements set in the Telecom Act, which isn’t exactly a surprise given that’s what it’s been saying all along.  What’s infuriating about the release is the blatant manipulation that’s inside.  For example, they headline that over 20 million Americans are “denied access to jobs”.  Yeah?  Well, it’s not that simple.

There are over 26 million people who are in un-served areas, or about 9.2 million households.  These are typically deeply rural populations. But this data, which the FCC headlines, is based on census-tract information; the county-level analysis of data cuts this value in half.  So which is right?  Obviously the one with the most dramatic results.  Also, how many of these 26 million are even of working age?  The FCC doesn’t attempt to figure that out.

Then there’s the question of whether lack of broadband, or the Internet, denies one access to jobs.  I’ve tried diligently, correlating FCC data on broadband availability with data on economic activity, to uncover a correlation between employment and the Internet, and the only one I’ve found is that where people are unemployed in large numbers they’re less likely to pay for broadband.  Surprised?  In cases where broadband programs have empowered areas not previously empowered, I’ve been unable to find any sign of an increase in employment or economic activity.

The FCC’s data also shows that while about a third of households don’t have broadband, only about 9% don’t have broadband because they can’t get it.  The remainder have elected not to take it.  Further, the data shows that the population is generally clustered around the low-end options in terms of price.  That correlates with reports that where superspeed broadband is offered by cable or telco providers, the uptake on the service is minimal.

We need to face reality here.  There is a strong public policy drive to say that the Internet is a fundamental right.  OK, that’s fine with me if you arrive at the decision based on rational and truthful processes, but we’re not doing that.  A third of all traffic is Netflix.  Most of the time spent on the Internet is spent on social networks.  This isn’t the picture of an Internet being used to pull people out of marginal employment or to raise standards of healthcare.  It’s a picture of one that’s keeping the kids occupied, keeping the parents entertained.  The cost of providing rural broadband can be ten or more times that of providing broadband to urban areas.  Some of the rural users have moved into the wild by choice; do they get subsidies to give them urban comforts in their rural setting?  How about giving some trees or wildlife to urban dwellers, then?

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