Cory Doctorow is one of those writers who is so smart he makes me feel stupid. But he does it in a way that educates me, so it’s really worth it in terms of my time.
He has a Medium article up titled “All (Broadband) Politics Are Local: A Chance for Individuals to Make a Difference,” which is about America having the crappiest consumer internet service in the world — and then he tell all of us what we can do about it.
Even before the lockdown, we all hated our ISPs. Comcast routinely won “worst company in America” polls. AT&T was a trash-fire of endless boondoggles and scandals. Verizon charged you $12/month to rent a modem, and also charged you $12/month to not rent a modem. Everyone hated Frontier for its slow speeds, which were revealed to be the result of the company’s practice of “installing” phone lines by tying them to trees with twine or draping them over shrubs. New York State ordered Charter/Spectrum to leave the state and never come back.
Then the pandemic struck, and terrible internet service became a matter of survival: it was how your kids went to school, how you visited the doctor, how you saw family, how you participated in civics and politics, and, for those of us who were lucky enough to have remote-capable jobs, how you earned your living.
The dismal state of the American telecoms industry, where monopolies divided up the country into non-competing exclusive territories like Pope Alexander VI dividing up the “New World,” suddenly became a lot more important.
The carriers didn’t give a shit. The feds showered them in billions, buying up their junk bonds and writing fat checks for PPP loans. Telco execs paid themselves bonuses and helped out their shareholders with massive stock buybacks.
But for workers and subscribers, it was a very different story. Charter-Spectrum’s CEO Thomas Rutledge (an asshole) paid himself the highest salary of any US CEO, while refusing to pay for his technicians’ PPE or hand sanitizer. In lieu of hazard pay, the installers who came to our homes were given coupons to eat at restaurants that had shuttered for the lockdown. Charter-Spectrum’s back office staff — who could have done their jobs from home — were required to go into work lest they goof off on company time. Charter-Spectrum offices became superspreader sites.
Doctorow goes on to say:
The federal project of getting America truly online, with symmetrical, universal, gigabit+ fiber is part of a long tradition. The federal government built the country’s electric and telephone system by sending grants, loans and expertise to rural co-ops, many of which are still around today (the Appalachian org that got Ole Bub to wire up every mountain pass is a co-op that was originally founded as part of the New Deal electrification push).
But the federal government can only do so much. Most of the fiber subsidy is in the form of grants to states, who have to accept that money and use it. States whose leadership has been captured by telco monopolists are going to be under enormous pressure to turn down broadband funds and leave their people with 20th century tin-can-and-string copper networks.
We need to counter that pressure. Residents of every state need to call their state legislators and demand participation in this universal broadband. Despite GOP rhetoric about “keeping government out of broadband,” every broadband provider is absolutely dependent on federal, state and local handouts for its existence. What’s more, the towns with municipal fiber swing both Democrat and Republic, and they all rhapsodize about the service.
In states like California where the state government is providing low-cost loans and grants to towns and counties, those local governments need to get an earful from their constituents about the need to take the state up on its offer.
The good news is that state and local legislators are far more responsive to constituent pressure than members of the federal Congress and Senate. A few minutes with your search engine will turn up the time and Zoom link for your next town hall meeting. These all have five-minute public comment periods. Calling up and giving your local government an earful about the economic and political benefits of kicking out the bloodsucking monopolists and replacing them with well-run fiber will make a difference — especially if you follow it up with emails to each counselor.
This is one of those rare moments where individual action can make a huge, lasting difference. All the pieces are coming together for a new broadband future for the nation, one where public provision and management ends decades of gouging, underinvestment and naked contempt from the universally loathed (and loathsome) telecoms sector.
See how easy? Something all of us can get behind!