When it comes to getting everyone connected to an open, affordable and fast Internet, the big phone and cable companies have a new motto: "Just Say No."
When the Obama administration called for a stimulus plan that included billions in grants to reach parts of the country that were struggling to get connected, the companies said "no" -- refusing to apply for money to close the broadband gap.
When Congress made open Internet conditions a part of funding the $7.2 billion broadband buildout, they said "no" -- filing objections in a push to block efforts to give these communities unfettered access.
And now that the first grants are being made available to applicants, companies including Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T are trying to stop funds from reaching groups that have plans to connect Americans stuck on the wrong side of the divide.
"They aren't leading, they aren't following, and they won't get out of the way," said Craig Settles, a municipal broadband expert, on NPR this morning. "They're not going to put proposals on the table because they don't like the rules. Yet they're not going to cooperate with the entities that are going after the money."
Public Interest vs. Entrenched Incumbents
NPR reported on a coalition of organizations that received $25 million in funding to connect people across Maine, including those in the most rural parts of the state. But Fairpoint, the Maine’s largest Internet provider, has tried to block this project, writing a state bill aimed at preventing the coalition from connecting many of the state’s residents.
And Comcast, the Philadelphia-based cable giant, filed reams of comments challenging the city’s wireless bid for federal funds to help close the gap with a less expensive option.
According to a report Monday in USA Today, Comcast also joined AT&T and Charter Communications in questioning an application to connect residents of Columbia County, Ga.; Time Warner Cable challenged a plan to offer broadband access to people in rural southern Ohio and northern West Virginia. All told, these companies have filed thousands of comments questioning funding for new projects to connect more Americans.
"We're at a point where it's the general public's interest vs. the entrenched incumbents," Settles said.
The Demographics of Access
The stimulus funds are designed to address a growing problem. While the United States is the birthplace of the Internet, broadband adoption rates have dropped off dramatically as access came under the control of a powerful cable and phone cartel. Today, these companies provide connections for more than 96 percent of residential high-speed users. And they’re determined to hold on to that market share.
Even more alarming are the demographics of access -- the so-called "digital divide." According to analysis by Free Press, only 35 percent of U.S. homes with less than $50,000 in annual income have a high-speed Internet connection. And the broadband benefit is not spread evenly. Only 40 percent of racial and ethnic minority households in the United States have access to broadband, while 55 percent of non-Hispanic white households are connected.
When requests went out for proposal applications last summer, federal agencies in charge of the effort were swamped with more than 2,200 requests for a total of $28 billion to build connections to "unserved" and "underserved" communities.
The broadband incumbents, initially, stood on the sidelines. Now they’re trying to slow and, in some cases, stop the distribution of funds.
The goal of the broadband stimulus was to quickly connect millions of poor and rural populations to help fuel new economic growth, create jobs, engage more people in civic affairs and provide access to medical, educational and government services. But the challenges by the phone and cable companies and the rush of applications have delayed efforts to get these projects off the ground.
The holdup couldn’t come at a worse time.
We face a challenge to reawaken our democracy and drive economic growth in a world where America's greatest commodity is its people. Universal access to an affordable, open and fast Internet is the means to a recovery that benefits everyone.
We can’t afford to wait.