The Tech Antitrust Problem No One Is Talking About: Broadband Providers

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The new fervor for tech antitrust has so far overlooked an equally obvious target: US broadband providers. “If you want to talk about a history of using gatekeeper power to harm competitors, there are few better examples,” says Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate Gigi Sohn. Sohn and other critics of the four companies that dominate US broadband—Verizon, Comcast, Charter Communications, and AT&T—argue that antitrust intervention has been needed for years to lower prices and widen internet access.

The Institute for Local Self Reliance, which promotes community broadband projects, recently estimated from Federal Communications Commission data that some 80 million Americans can only get high-speed broadband service from one provider. “That is quite intentional on the part of cable operators,” says Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard Law School. “These companies are extracting rent from Americans based on their monopoly positions.”

Making US broadband significantly more competitive would require larger and more coordinated action by the White House and Congress. Options worth considering include reversing some of the acquisitions that turned Comcast and others into nation-spanning giants, and mandating that companies allow competitors to use their networks, as is common in Europe, says Joshua Stager, a senior policy counsel at New America's Open Technology Institute. Those would be more notable antitrust actions than seen from the US government in a while, but Stager believes the case is there. “The backlog of evidence is certainly there, and with increasing pressure on the networks, much more could come to the surface,” he says.

The Tech Antitrust Problem No One Is Talking About