Why Your State Has Terrible Internet Access

In the wake of federal apathy and corruption, some—but not all—states are taking the fight for better broadband into their own hands.
February 28, 2020, 1:00pm
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A new study released this week by the Pew Charitable Trusts took a closer look at which states are doing a good job shoring up access to better, faster, broadband, and why some states are falling behind when it comes to fixing one of America’s most stubborn problems.

One study recently found that US broadband gaps are roughly about twice as bad as the FCC claims, with more than 42 million US homes lacking broadband access of any kind. Even in areas of the US where broadband is more common, competition barely exists—resulting in high prices, slow speeds, and customer service that can make the banking industry seem charming.

In an interview, Pew manager Kathryn de Wit told Motherboard their study found that there’s no single, quick fix for states looking to shore up availability.

“Successful state programs rely on a combination of activities—stakeholder engagement, policy, planning, funding, and program evaluation—to work toward their objectives,” she said.” One of our interviewees said it’s not about finding a silver bullet, but using ‘silver buckshot.’”

De Wit pointed to states like Maine, where a variety of tactics are being used to shore up broadband access. For example, in Baileyville and Calais, Maine, locals are supporting a community-run, open access network that lets numerous ISPs come in and compete. New York City just unveiled a similar open access network on an even larger scale.

In the wake of federal dysfunction and apathy, a growing roster of towns, cities, and states are pursuing similar projects. More than 750 towns and cities have built their own broadband networks, and a growing number of states have not only signed off on major broadband improvement efforts, but have passed new broadband privacy and net neutrality rules.

Outside of building their own networks, Pew found that there’s a number of things states can do to help speed up broadband deployment, from streamlining ISP access to utility poles, to passing “dig once” rules requiring fiber conduit be run alongside all new highway construction.

Pew unsurprisingly found that the cost of broadband deployment is often the biggest obstacle, with states usually only getting a tiny fraction of the money needed to shore up access. Pew cited a 2017 Tennessee study that found bringing broadband to 160,000 neglected homes would cost up to $800 million — yet only $25 million in federal grant money was available.

Omitted by Pew is one of the most glaring reasons for the US’ problems: the corrupting influence big telecom has on lawmakers and regulators alike. Nearly two dozen states have passed ISP-backed laws banning towns and cities from building their own broadband networks, and companies like AT&T have even tried burying broadband competition-eroding measures in unrelated state traffic ordinances.

Big telecom lobbyists are often quick to try and undermine any effort to improve availability and competition. Chattanooga’s community run-ISP EPB, for example, has been declared the best ISP in America. At the same time, a Tennessee law lobbied for by the broadband industry has prevented the network from expanding its operation to underserved areas in the state.

This corruption is also a frequent problem in efforts to subsidize broadband deployment. In states like West Virginia, ISPs like Frontier Communications have routinely been accused of defrauding taxpayers. Giants like AT&T and Verizon have enjoyed billions in subsidies in exchange for networks that, time and time again, somehow only wind up half deployed.

De Wit said tougher state leaders are making sure to include protections against such pitfalls in their broadband expansion and grant programs.

“Our research found that states are increasingly implementing accountability measures,” de Wit said. “For example: some state grant programs are including community engagement requirements. This can be as simple as letters of support for a project application or as formalized as a financial commitment.”

De Wit said a cornerstone of a quality state plan involves something fairly obvious: actually listening to local constituents. Municipal broadband advocate Christopher Mitchell told Motherboard last year that local public and private ISPs tend to be more responsive to community needs because they’re already part of the community.

“They are frequently headquartered in or very near the communities they serve, so they spend more time worrying about what their customers think—while the big monopolies are first serving shareholders and less interested in customer experience,” he said.

De Wit noted that while community broadband can do a good job spurring local providers to try and compete (assuming state legislatures haven’t banned such efforts), truly fixing the problem at scale requires the cooperation of state and federal government, activists, private companies, local citizens, and yes, big telecom.

“We’ve seen broadband access improve with all different types of models: small providers, large providers, electric coops, and municipal providers,” she said. “What’s more important is how providers engage with the community they serve. Our report highlights the need for cooperation among providers, community leaders, constituents, and all stakeholders to ensure the effective expansion of access.”

If you’re curious about what your own state is up to, the Pew study includes an interactive tool and separate table showing the state agencies, expansion plans, broadband-related laws, and overall goals for all fifty states.