St. Clair County, about 100 miles southeast of Kansas City, has a population of about 9,000 people. Roughly 18% of them live below the poverty line. Theresa Heckenlively is the head of economic development for the county, and says lack of internet access is hurting the county now, and limiting its future. “We don’t have enough service to be reliable for home and definitely not enough for economic growth,” Heckenlively said. “We see that a lot of people are coming from out of state and want to move into our rural communities.
Let’s stop ignoring the obvious: broadband internet access service is a public utility and needs to be regulated as one.
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.
For all that has changed since the Benton Institute released Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, this goal remains paramount. In October 2019, we said that connecting our entire nation through High-Performance Broadband would bring remarkable economic, social, cultural, and personal benefits. We said that open, affordable, robust broadband is the key to all of us reaching for—and achieving—the American Dream.
The Federal Communications Commission eliminated legacy unbundling and resale rules where they stifle technology transitions and broadband deployment. The rules date back to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which required monopoly local telephone companies to make portions of their networks and services available to competitors at regulated rates. The Order eliminates rules requiring unbundling of the following network elements, subject to certain conditions and multiyear transition periods:
The digital divide hasn’t gone away, despite much money spent and many speeches made. A patchwork of conflicting government programs, flawed maps, and weak enforcement have left broad swaths of the country without access to high-speed or even basic internet service when people need it more than ever. The result is a longstanding source of personal frustration and economic disadvantage for many rural communities in areas where spread-out housing makes adding new wires expensive.
The internet has grown into a utility, and internet access should be regulated as such. The position of the US government — not to mention phone and cable companies — is that the internet is a free-market service, full stop. It’s not a utility. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai says the internet industry merits only what he calls “light-touch” regulation, which is to say hardly any regulation at all. “The FCC’s light-touch approach is working,” Chairman Pai declared in 2019.
AT&T reports it now has 4.7 million fiber subscribers, adding 357K net new fiber subscribers in 3Q 2020, up over 12% from 3Q 2019. AT&T now reports 33% penetration of its fiber homes passed. Verizon reported 139K net adds for consumer Fios fiber subscribers, the most net additions since 4Q 2014. That’s up over 450% from 3Q 2019. Verizon now counts 6.1 million fiber subscribers.
The private market will not close this digital divide on its own. Nearly 28 million American households have a single choice of broadband provider; millions more live in duopolies. Government primarily serves as a regulator—recently, an anti-city, anti-competition regulator—with a few programs that subsidize internet service providers’ (ISPs) service of low-income residents. New models of public-private partnership are essential to achieve universal broadband. The public and civic sectors have three principal tools to shape these partnerships: