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Cities Say ISPs Are Being Cagey About Low-Income Broadband Availability During Covid

Back in March, the Trump FCC put on a big show about a new "Keep America Connected Pledge" to help broadband users during COVID. In it, the FCC proudly proclaimed that it had gotten hundreds of ISPs to suspend usage caps and late fees, and agree to not disconnect users who couldn't pay for essential broadband service during a pandemic. The problem: the 60 day pledge was entirely voluntary, temporary, and because the FCC just got done obliterating its authority over ISPs at lobbyist behest (as part of its net neutrality repeal), was impossible to actually enforce. It was regulatory theater.

The rather meaningless pledge has since expired despite the pandemic only getting worse. And because this FCC doesn't actually care about consumer protection (it literally doesn't even collect data on who is getting kicked offline for nonpayment), many ISPs simply ignored the pledge, and kicked users offline anyway; even disabled Americans who were told repeatedly by their ISPs that they wouldn't be booted offline for nonpayment during the crisis. Meanwhile, most ISPs have also restored their bullshit, arbitrary usage caps, making them a pretty additional penny during a crisis.

Meanwhile, because the FCC's broadband availability and pricing data collection is a joke, it's proving harder than ever for local municipalities to help the public during this crisis. With broadband now essential for survival during COVID, many towns and cities are struggling to ensure Americans can get online, and working blind thanks to federal government incompetence and a lack of transparency in the broadband sector.

Government leaders in Philadelphia, for example, can't get accurate low-income broadband household penetration data from either the FCC or Comcast, so they're literally having to go around to ask families if they've got service and how much they pay:

"In Philadelphia, city officials have struggled to get the data from Comcast, one of the nation's largest ISPs and the owner of NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News. So city officials contacted families directly to find out whether they have internet service. Philadelphia said that as of Oct. 21, after a media campaign, surveys and canvassing, it had been able to bring over 11,000 families online since March. In Nashville, Tennessee, a group is starting its own digital divide census, because it isn't counting on ISPs like Comcast and AT&T to help."

Despite what telecom-funded monopoly apologists say, gutting adult regulatory oversight and letting giant monopolies do whatever the hell they want does not result in miraculous outcomes, it results in wealthy monopolists, bullshit, and frustration. Many ISPs like Comcast are quick to use low-income broadband programs for lobbying and marketing, but when people trying to actually bridge the digital divide ask for hard data on who is or isn't served so they can help them, incumbent ISPs suddenly get all sheepish.

Usually that's because being transparent about this data only advertises how dubious these programs are and how patchy, expensive, and non-competitive the U.S. broadband sector is. But ISPs like to pretend how many low-income Americans they serve is some competitive secret:

"It's a battle that public interest groups were fighting well before the coronavirus pandemic began, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an advocacy group that works on broadband issues. He said it's time for state and federal government agencies to step in. The FCC and states should be requiring broadband companies to submit basic data about these issues and it should be made publicly available," he said by email. "Public interest groups have argued for this for years but the providers frequently claim it is all proprietary data they cannot let their rivals know about."/em>

With COVID sticking around for a while, competent federal leadership on this subject is going to matter more than ever. We're going to have to do more than throw mindless tax breaks and subsidies at giant monopolies (with long track records of misspending or just pocketing the money) then patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. Fixing broken U.S. broadband requires rooting out both state and federal corruption, prioritizing accurate, reliable data at the FCC, and embracing creative, intelligent solutions to bring new broadband options to struggling Americans, even if (especially if?) they piss off incumbents like AT&T and Comcast.

There used to be a long-standing debate about whether broadband was an essential utility or a luxury. In part because once you realize it's the former, the corrupt bullshit status quo no longer becomes tenable. With COVID (and kids being forced to huddle outside of a Taco Bell just to attend class) that conversation is dead and settled. Affordable broadband is now an issue of survival. This corrupt, sloppy bullshit we've been passing off as "serious broadband policy" for the last thirty years is no longer going to cut it.

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