Last week a study highlighted how more than 42 million Americans lack access to broadband, more than double previous FCC estimates. In New York City alone more than 1.5 million people—18 percent of city residents—don’t have access to a broadband connection of any kind at home.
When you ask the U.S. government why this is, it often claims that users simply don’t want broadband. Surveys from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), for example, suggest that 55 percent of Americans without broadband either didn’t want it or didn’t see the point.
But a new study from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) suggests that the government’s understanding of the problem—and its plan to fix it—are both dead wrong.
The study found that flaws in the NTIA’s survey methodology result in the blame for the digital divide being placed unfairly on allegedly disinterested, largely rural consumers. It instead points to a more recent 2019 Pew study that found 50 percent of non-broadband subscribers cited high prices as the reason they lack service—a problem not at all exclusive to rural markets.
Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) routinely shows that Americans pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for broadband thanks largely to one reason: limited competition. That lack of competition is particularly pronounced at faster speeds, resulting not only in high prices, but terrible customer service, spotty availability, and things like privacy violations and usage caps.
Study author John Horrigan told Motherboard a major reason the telecom industry wants the conversation focused on access and education instead of price is that acknowledging there’s a competition problem might just result in somebody actually trying to fix it.
“A focus on affordability of service sets the policy discussion down the path of talking about price regulation and market structure,” Horrigan said.
Horrigan was quick to note that digital education was still important, as was shoring up broadband coverage gaps. His group has frequently released studies showing that incumbent broadband providers like AT&T skimp on delivering broadband to rural, low income, and minority areas, despite having been given billions in taxpayer subsidies for uniform service.
Ajit Pai’s FCC routinely claims that solving the “digital divide” is his top priority. One of his favored approaches to the problem has been to eliminate consumer protections like net neutrality, which he falsely claims stifled sector investment. Pai also often frames the problem as a predominantly rural one, when data suggests that’s simply not true.
“Chairman Pai equates closing the digital divide with addressing infrastructure availability in rural areas,” Horrigan said. “But the fact is lack of infrastructure is not a big issue behind not having a broadband subscription at home. Affordability and cost of an access device matter more—and far more non-rural Americans do not have broadband subscriptions at home than ones living in rural areas.”
Based on Pew data and data compiled via the American Community Survey, Horrigan estimates that somewhere around 18.5 million households lack broadband due to the high cost of service.
Yet it often seems like the US government isn’t even trying to even understand the problem. Not only are FCC broadband maps historically terrible and inaccurate, the agency doesn’t collect or share US broadband pricing data, resulting in Pai’s fellow FCC Commissioners wondering how you’re supposed to fix a problem you don’t actually understand.
Hand in hand with industry, the FCC has promised to eventually start using more accurate crowdsourced data to get a better bead on broadband availability, but the inclusion of pricing data remains nowhere in sight. Pai’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Rosenworcel’s office directed Motherboard to a statement the Commissioner made last August.
“If we want a truly accurate picture of broadband service across the country we are setting ourselves up for problems by not even asking how price and affordability plays a role,” Rosenworcel said. “Here’s the thing: it plays a big one.”
Dana Floberg, policy manager at consumer group Free Press, told Motherboard that framing disconnected users as not understanding what they’re missing is symptomatic of a longstanding effort to marginalize low income and minority communities.
“There are racist and classist implications to arguing that those who don't have broadband just ‘don't get it,’” Floberg said. “Low-income families and people of color are disproportionately less likely to have home broadband, and this country has a long history of blaming systemic racial and economic inequities on the marginalized folks who suffer under them.”
Floberg said ISPs routinely oppose both better broadband mapping and the collection of pricing data because it would more clearly illustrate how in countless markets, the US broadband industry is a broken mess dominated by just a handful of politically powerful giants.
“What the ISPs are actually afraid of is researchers and policymakers being able to see at a glance how outrageous their monopoly prices really are,” Floberg said.
Floberg said you can’t close the digital divide without first addressing affordability and a lack of competition, subjects Pai routinely avoids in policy speeches.
“The truth is that Pai is not working to bridge the digital divide,” she said. “Instead, he's using these serious digital inequities as window-dressing to sell his pro-industry ideological agenda.”