When Will We Stop Screwing Poor and Rural Americans on Broadband?

Trump campaigned on the issue and has done almost nothing. Democrats have noticed.

Here is the lede to a Wall Street Journal story that ran on Christmas Eve:

Americans in low-income neighborhoods and rural areas get slower broadband speeds even though they generally pay similar monthly prices as their counterparts in wealthy and urban areas.

The country’s biggest broadband provider charges more in markets without competition.

Most people don’t have a choice.

These are among the findings of a Wall Street Journal analysis of America’s internet bills.

The story, based on an examination of 3,300 bills for broadband service in 50 states, detailed how customers in low-income neighborhoods wind up paying the same monthly rates as those in wealthier areas, but for service that is 40 percent slower (it’s slower still for folks in rural areas). Plus, lower-income and rural customers are routinely hit with extra fees that others aren’t. To make matters even worse, two out of three Americans live in areas where there is only one provider of high-speed internet service—in other words, under a monopoly.

High-speed broadband is to the 21st century what electricity became in the 20th—a service so essential that lacking it means not fully participating in modern life. So the fact that people in poor and rural communities are being made to pay more for crappier broadband service, and most of us are being overcharged by monopolists, is no small thing. Imagine trying to run a web-reliant business in a small town and having to go up against firms in larger cities that have a built-in advantage on internet speed and cost. As you slowly find yourself unable to compete, you might get a little, you know, resentful. You might come to the conclusion that the rules are rigged against you by those urban people. And you might decide to vote for someone who promises to give those people hell.

Of course, no one saw this problem coming. No, wait, that’s not true. The Washington Monthly warned about the undermining of competition in the broadband market, and how to fix the problem … in 2001! And then again in 2002, 2006, 2009, 2015,and 2016. In fact, it was our ongoing investigations of anti-competitive behavior and pro-monopoly policies in the broadband market that led us to the understanding, long before any other publication, that corporate consolidation was a huge and growing problem in the economy more broadly

Fortunately, a number of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have taken up the cause of broadband reform—just as they have the issue of monopoly generally—and their positions on the issue reflect almost perfectly their individual political profiles: Bernie Sanders wants to throw the most money at the problem: $150 billion for what he calls “high speed internet for all”; Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg propose spending around half as much but in characteristically smarter and wonkier ways—for instance, by funding the FCC to create detailed broadband pricing “maps” so that antitrust regulators have the evidence they need to crack down on anti-competitive behavior; Amy Klobuchar has gone a step beyond all of them by actually introducing legislation in the Senate, the Improving Broadband Mapping Act; and Joe Biden, predictably, has not had much to say on the matter, though he has proposed spending $20 billion to build out rural broadband infrastructure.

That’s way more than Donald Trump has done. He campaigned in 2016 on delivering broadband to rural America but has so far provided only a $600 million USDA pilot project while his FCC appointees have cracked down on efforts by municipalities to offer free wifi.

The high-speed broadband issue encapsulates the kind of journalism we try to practice at the Washington Monthly. We endeavor to be ahead of the curve on matters of public policy—to provide readers with, as my colleague Phil Longman likes to say, solutions to problems they don’t know they have. And then we keep covering those issues, year after year, until the rest of the press notices them—and elected officials start acting on them

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. He was an editor at the magazine from 1986 to 1988.