January 23, 2021

Oh Look, More Giant ISPs Taking Taxpayer Money For Unfinished Networks

For more than a decade we’ve highlighted how the U.S. simply adores throwing taxpayer money at giant telecom companies in exchange for networks they then only half deploy. Whether it’s on the city, state, or federal level, we’ve thrown untold billions at mono/duopolies which in turn dodge their obligations under these agreements with little to no real penalty. While sometimes this money winds up being used as intended, just as often this money winds up being pocketed by executives and shareholders with little discernible impact on America’s broken and uncompetitive broadband markets.

The latest case in point: both Centurylink and Frontier have informed the FCC they’ve failed to meet FCC required broadband milestones after receiving millions in taxpayer subsidies:

“CenturyLink notified the Federal Communications Commission that it “may not have reached the deployment milestone” in 23 states and that it hit the latest deadline in only 10 states. Frontier similarly notified the FCC that it “may not have met” the requirements in 13 states. Frontier met or exceeded the requirement in 16 other states. Under program rules, the ISPs were required to bring Internet access to 80 percent of funded locations by the end of 2019 and must hit 100 percent by the end of 2020.”

Keep in mind, these deployment goals aren’t exactly what you’d call difficult. Under the terms of the FCC’s 2015 Connect America Fund Auction, the two ISPs agreed to expand access to DSL at speeds of 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps (1 Mbps!) up in exchange for big taxpayer payouts. In CenturyLink’s case, the company is slated to net $505.7 million annually for six years to deploy service to 1,174,142 homes and businesses in 33 states. For Frontier, the company received $283.4 million annually for six years to bring access to 774,000 locations in 29 states.

Keep in mind these customers aren’t even really getting broadband, which is defined as at least 25 Mbps by the FCC. What these territories are getting is overpriced, slow DSL, belched up from somewhere around 2003 or so from two companies that have a long, sordid history of atrocious customer service and a failure to upgrade or repair their aging networks. In most markets that’s giving giants like Comcast and Spectrum an even bigger monopoly, resulting in higher rates for all broadband users as competition wanes.

Unsurprisingly, throwing billions at companies for antiquated broadband service (that’s never fully deployed anyway) doesn’t really fix things. In large part because we don’t fully understand the problem we’re trying to fix. Despite a lot of claims to the contrary, we don’t actually know where broadband is deployed. US broadband maps are notorious garbage, and the telecom lobby has fought tooth and nail against efforts to fix them. Why? It’s two-pronged: better maps would only highlight a lack of competition (potentially prompting somebody to actually fix it), and it helps them obscure the waste and fraud on the subsidy end.

Ideally, the FCC would step in here and punish both companies for failing to meet arguably modest goals or not being honest about where broadband is available. But there’s little real indication that’s actually going to happen. Just ask Verizon, which was given billions in subsidies and tax breaks by countless states and cities in exchange for fiber it never fully deployed. Or AT&T, which routinely receives billions in tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory favors in exchange for jobs and broadband deployment that somehow never fully materialize. The penalties for both companies have been utterly nonexistent.

There’s a chorus of telecom sector sycophants and Trump FCC officials that throw face-fanning tantrums every time some podunk town in Nebraska decides to spend a million bucks to build a better alternative to Comcast. But you’ll notice those same folks never have a single sour word to say about the multi-decade tendency to throw billions of dollars at unaccountable monopolies in exchange for networks they never fully deploy. These folks are usually pretty easy to spot: like Pai, just look for the folks going comically out of their way to even acknowledge the limited competition and high prices that plague the US broadband sector.

Were you to do a proper audit of the telecom sector over the last 30 years, I’d all but guarantee the amount of money thrown at the sector could have funded a fiber optic line to every home in America several times over. Instead, thanks in large part to revolving door regulators and cronyism, we’ve built a system that throws unaccountable billions at giants like AT&T and Comcast, in exchange for substandard broadband, terrible customer service, and an eternal fountain of empty promises.
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