Three Digital Americas

Why those who could make a difference don’t realize they need to

Is high-speed internet a necessity for everyone, or just regulators?

We are only halfway through 2015, but it has been a surprising year in the realm of media policy. The FCC’s support of Open Internet rules and the obstacles it provided that led to a failed Comcast/Time Warner merger were surprising events, although not unexpected to me. Knowing the history of U.S. media policy and the state of the current internet-service industry, these policy actions seemed necessary and obvious. But also cognizant of the stranglehold corporate interests have over media policy, I was surprised when good policy and the interests of citizens/consumers won the day.

It soon became clear, however, that these outcomes were both surprising and unexpected to many decision makers in these industries. A tidal wave of articles attempted to explain this unexpected turn of events, and at the big, annual cable/internet trade show in early May, it was clear that the industry had been caught off guard. I was again, surprised; this time because this outcome was so unexpected to astute industry leaders.

Where do the Big Broadband Companies Compete in America Rani Molla, WSJ

In trying to explain this unexpectedness, I came to realize how differently many of these industry leaders experience digital America. When I read claims by industry leaders and pundits of “ample competition” in the lead-up to the FCC rulemaking, I initially assumed it political spin. But as I dug into the matter I realized that competition, though quite limited, does exist. Comcast faces competition from FiOS in 14% of the territories it serves, while — if allowed to merge — New Charter (borne of Charter, Time Warner, and Brighthouse) will face competition in 12%. The key is this competition tends to be in wealthy, metropolitan neighborhoods along the East Coast, i.e. where regulators and industry leaders reside.

Connected Nation, January 2015

The view from southeast Michigan is considerably different. Though Ann Arbor is no backwoods — a college town with two Whole Foods, Uber, and a mere 30-minute drive from the Detroit airport — most can only receive internet service from Comcast, though AT&T offers U-verse in select neighborhoods. The lack of competition leads to higher service fees, less infrastructure upgrade, and slower introduction of technology and devices common in competitive markets. And so it is for most of the country, a very different digital America than the more competitive one industry executives and policymakers live in.

Before I attempt a song of woe for the majority of Americans — though the lack of competition and consistently poor customer service is woeful — it is important to acknowledge the digital reality of the third America, rural America. Though I might complain about the lack of a competitive marketplace, this America longs for service speeds the rest of us would complain about. This digital America registers neither surprise nor expectation over broadband policy actions, only frustration.

One of the FCC commissioners, Michael O’Rielly, recently spoke before the Internet Innovation Alliance, where he opened his talk by listing the technologies he depends on everyday — “Blackberry, smartphone, two tablets, desktop and a laptop computer,” noting that he has “taken advantage of Internet broadband to expand my horizons both as a consumer and a professional.” Later in his remarks, he outlined his policy position, noting, as a bullet point, that “Internet access is not a necessity or human right.” Given his admitted personal techno-reliance, O’Rielly must mean it is not a necessity for other people. Clearly expanded horizons are only meant for a privileged few. O’Rielly, like many others, take for granted their digital experience and probably can’t even imagine the norm in most of the country.

This is one of the key problems with U.S. telecommunication policy at the moment. Those most able to create policies that will bring the reality of wealthy digital enclaves to the rest of America don’t realize how special and uncommon their reality is. Though companies like Comcast, Time Warner, and Charter face competition in a few markets, they only behave competitively in those few places. New rural broadband funding through the USDA announced this summer is a start, but hardly a replacement for a comprehensive national plan to accomplish the goals the President and FCC have set to bring U.S. telecommunication into the 21st century.

Here’s hoping some regulators get out of the city and vacation this summer in the America most of us live in. Then maybe the urgency of national broadband policy that seeks for competition outside the most lucrative neighborhoods will become more apparent. Whether in Washington, DC, Walla Walla, or 20 miles outside of Wichita, affordable, high-speed broadband is the lifeblood of modern communication and commerce. As for the legislators who actually live in and represent the places lacking competition or service, what is taking you so long?