Jun 25, 2020

Want affordable, abundant internet access? Competition’s the key.

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More than 129 million people only have one option for broadband, a study showed.

All this week, we’ve been looking at internet access, cost, infrastructure, and today, competition. Actually, the almost complete lack of competition. 

According to a 2017 study from the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, more than 129 million people in the U.S. only have one option for broadband. Is that a government problem or a free market problem? 

I spoke with Susan Crawford, a law professor at Harvard and the author of the book “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution — and Why America Might Miss It.” The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Susan Crawford (Photo courtesy of Crawford)

Susan Crawford: Without oversight or competition, we’ve allowed a handful of players to really control our internet access destiny. It’s particularly cruel right now — about 18% of African American households in America don’t have a connection at home. Many times that’s because of cost, [and] there may be that cable provider there, but they’re a local monopoly and they can charge whatever they like.

Molly Wood: There’s been a lot of conversation about classifying the internet as a utility. Would a legal classification ameliorate some of these problems?

Crawford: It would certainly be a step. Look, when you go get a driver’s license, you can bring your cable bill as evidence of your address. It feels like a utility to Americans, and they don’t want to give it up. They’ll pay for it often before they’ll pay for food if they’re running out of money. Legal classification would be a first step towards ensuring that these networks are forced to compete, but it would run headlong into an awful lot of litigation, and I’ve actually pushed in my career for just avoiding these guys and building around them. Just make sure that there’s a publicly owned basic facility like the open road, across which many competitors can travel, and that that basic facility is available at low prices to many members of the private market who want to compete in providing internet access to all of us. That’s how we get to lower prices.

Wood: Are you talking about publicly funded, new infrastructure?

Crawford: Yeah, I’m talking about [the] same kind of thing we did for electricity in the 1930s, which is to ensure that people all over the country have a connection to their home at a basic level of efficacy. And then to ensure that that basic infrastructure is available for lease to private providers so that everybody can get a cheap connection from a private provider.

Wood: Do you feel like people understand that that’s not what we have, because a lot of the existing infrastructure was subsidized originally?

Crawford: Hugely. The federal government set up rules giving access to things like poles and conduit and ducts across the country. That access to those rights of way made these existing networks possible. We then very much let go of oversight, especially in urban areas, with a result that we’ve got extraordinarily expensive access, usually provided by a single provider, subject to very little competition. Comcast and Charter’s only head-to-head competition would come from fiber to the home as a provider, and they face that competition in only about a third of their footprints. Their room to grow by just charging people for their service is fairly great all over America, particularly in urban areas.

Wood: Over the past year, SpaceX has launched hundreds, maybe thousands, of satellites in an attempt to provide internet service. We’ve seen Google start and stop. Is there a possibility of new entrants to the market improving the competitive landscape?

Crawford: The only way to disrupt this marketplace is to make basic infrastructure available that anybody could rent to compete with them. Right now, we’ve got the worst of both worlds. We’ve got no federal infrastructure, no federal oversight and no competition. We’re leaving lots of Americans out, and particularly when we know we need internet access in order to educate our children and get access to health services, the cruelty of this situation is really appalling.

Wood: Do you think that this pandemic and the exposure of how necessary the internet is to work, education and functioning in today’s society, will that change the tenor of any of these conversations?

Crawford: Look, human beings, by their nature, are cheerful and resilient, and I’m one of them. I have to be optimistic that we will figure this out. We put a man on the moon, we built the Hoover Dam — we’re capable of great things. We can remember that again, we can take seriously our obligation to provide everybody with a decent life and opportunity and have the bravery to take on the incumbents. [Franklin D. Roosevelt’s] chief opponent in the 1932 election was the private electricity industry, that didn’t want to be disrupted and really loved the status quo. It didn’t want to see any kind of regulatory oversight. [FDR] battled that industry, and as a result, we have relatively inexpensive electricity across America reaching everyone. There must be a candidate out there somewhere who understands the importance of internet access to the future of the country.

Wood: These conversations and, in some cases, these buildouts are happening here and there in municipalities. Does it have to be a federal effort, though?

Crawford: Ultimately, the federal government has to be involved. But you’re right, there are more than 800 cities across America who have decided they are sick of not having their destinies in their own hands and have taken steps towards providing people with very high-speed, very cheap access. That’s been a crucial development, but it’s just a patchwork, and we’ll need to take much bigger steps in order to make sure this reaches everyone.

Wood: Where do you see the conversation about 5G fitting in here? For just a nanosecond there, the Trump administration seemed to be having conversations about trying to, at least a little bit, nationalize that infrastructure.

Crawford: It’s totally complementary. Without fiber everywhere, we can’t have 5G. Saying we could have 5G without fiber is like saying, oh, we’ve got airplanes. Who needs airports? That signal has to go somewhere, and only fiber can carry the tsunami of data it’s going to create. The idea of having competitive 5G providers everywhere will carry with it the necessity of having cheap, competitive fiber available everywhere as well.

Related interview: More insight from a listener

Today, we hear from Jennifer Bridgens, who lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her passion is organizing information and helping people figure out how to search for things, both online and in the real world. She was working as a business analyst for the state of Pennsylvania but was let go at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. She’s now unemployed and has been relying on the internet to search for jobs and to get crucial services.

Jennifer Bridgens’ working-from-home station. (Photo courtesy of Bridgens)

“Everything seemed OK. It was OK, until mid-April. I would notice that there were certain times a day that it felt like rush hour. I was filling out the form for food stamps, and I thought, oh, it’s because there’s so many people that are probably applying for this, because the form crashed on me multiple times. It happened like four times right in a row. When I went back in to restart the form, I’d have to retype everything out again. You have to tell them [if] you have any cash in the house, money in savings accounts or savings bonds. Basically, do you have anything of value that you could sell for money? Having to repeat that information multiple times is really annoying. I was like, this is weird, and it keeps failing at the same point. I finally was like, I’m going to do it on my phone and turn off the Wi-Fi. It went through, no problem.

“A lot of this year … I’ve felt on and off quite hopeless. Like what’s the point? I was on a sequestered jury. Then I lost my job. And my best friend died. Then I turned 40. So much craziness happened, and I was wondering if it was really worth it. And then [a] police officer killed George Floyd, and I was like, nothing that I’ve been through matters. Whatever problems I have with my internet, my finances or anything like that, pales in comparison.

“You don’t get to choose the time that we’re alive in. I think it’s good to be alive right now, and I think it’s good to speak out and to make our voices known and to seize whatever opportunity we can.”

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer