With all due respect to the Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, his reaction to the Bailout Act’s State and Local Tax Relief Fund (SLFRF) spending rules is far from basic. As I wrote last week, the rules governing broadband infrastructure spending are a good model for pushing decision-making back to the local level, where people actually have the information they need to make informed decisions. (Doug Dawson also recently responded to Commissioner Carr’s statement, offering a response with some overlap of the points below.)
See Christopher Mitchell, Treasury Department Rescue Plan Act Rules Improve Broadband Funding, Broadband Breakfast, January 13, 2022
The Treasury Department’s final rule grants broad discretion to local and state governments that choose to spend a portion of SLFRF (SLurF-uRF) funds on broadband infrastructure. The previous draft rules made it more difficult for networks built to meet the challenges of urban affordability.
However, in opposing the rules, FCC Commissioner Carr expresses the anger of the big cable and telephone monopolies that cities can, after gathering evidence of need, invest in broadband even in areas where these companies may already be selling services. Commissioner Carr may also be frustrated that he was reduced to side-twittering on this issue because the former FCC, under his party’s leadership, messed up broadband grants in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund so badly. (RDOF) that Congress has decided that the NTIA should administer these funds and that the state should distribute them.
Nevertheless, the issues raised by Commissioner Carr are common topics of discussion inside the Beltway and we believe they need to be addressed.
The FCC’s failure to assemble accurate data collection has been brewing for many years. No presidential administration can take full responsibility for it, but any of them could have corrected it.
President that of Joe Biden The FCC is not yet fully assembled due to delays in nomination and Senate confirmation, but it would not be reasonable to blame the current FCC for the failures discussed below. That said, it’s not clear that we’re on track to have better maps and data that will fix these issues anytime soon.
Commissioner Carr’s critique
Commissioner Carr immediately jumps into the rural versus urban setting, suggesting that the Biden administration could be leaving rural families behind by allowing local governments to invest in broadband in areas where an existing provider can already claim to offer service. Banning the practice — which he and others inside the biggest cable and phone companies call “overbuilding” — was a major focus for Republican FCC commissioners.
- Rather than directing those dollars to rural and other communities without any internet infrastructure today, the administration is giving recipients the go-ahead to spend those funds on building existing broadband networks in communities that have already several broadband providers. This would only deepen the digital divide in this country.
Excuse me? Logically, we do not know exactly what Commissioner Carr is attacking here. Using Maryland as an example, if Baltimore is allowed to spend some of its funds to ensure offline families in public housing have high-quality internet access, it’s not clear that rural county of Garrett in the western part of the state be harmed. Local governments do not receive different amounts of funds depending on whether they spend them on broadband or other eligible expenditures.
See Christopher Mitchell and others from the Institute for Local Self Reliance in the Broadband Breakfast Live Online Wednesday, January 19, 2022 — The Community Broadband Network Approach to Infrastructure Funding
Broadband Lunch January 19, 2022 — The Community Broadband Network Approach to Infrastructure Funding
States could be the problem. Commissioner Carr may be concerned that Maryland is using some of its SLFRF money for broadband and spending too much in urban areas rather than rural ones. This would be a historical anomaly, even if there are many more people living in urban areas than in rural areas who do not have internet access. And yet, nearly all state and federal dollars have gone to rural areas for infrastructure improvements, and very little has been spent to help low-income families left in urban areas. There is no history of states prioritizing urban investments over rural investments.
Bad data, Srsly?
What I found really infuriating was this piece:
- It’s getting worse. Treasury rules allow these billions of dollars to be spent based on bad data. It does this by allowing recipients to determine if an area lacks high-speed Internet service based on interviews and informal reports – however inaccurate – rather than the broadband maps that the federal government has funded and implemented.
It’s 2022. The FCC announced three weeks ago that it doesn’t have a timeline for better cards. Many of us have complained for over 10 years about the misleading and inaccurate collection of statements the FCC puts forward as its understanding of where broadband exists in the United States.
Commissioner Carr has served as FCC commissioner for more than four years, most of that time when his agency was led by a Republican. During part of this period, Republicans controlled the Presidency, House, and Senate. They have no excuse as to why his party’s FCC ended up with the same bad data processes it started with. No one was defending the FCC data or maps during those years, but the FCC didn’t bother to start collecting new data.
Now, Commissioner Carr says “some parts of this country” have broadband at speeds approaching 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. Alright, commissioner. Where? Do you have a secret list? No, these are talking points to mask the fact that Commissioner Carr and his agency have been completely unsuccessful in tracking precisely which “parts of this country” actually have broadband access.
Do I agree that most, maybe 80%, of the country has access to 100 by 20 Mbps? Yes. But it doesn’t matter if no one can agree on which households are well served. And that opens up a whole other set of questions that Carr carefully avoids, namely that contemporary broadband service goes beyond the academic question of whether an ISP provides that service most of the time at a certain price. If the price is not affordable, there is a problem that needs to be solved. Or as we like to say, if it’s not affordable, it’s not accessible. And, if the service isn’t very reliable, there’s a problem that needs to be fixed.
That’s why the final rule is both necessary and good: because it gives communities the flexibility they need to fill not just gaps in infrastructure, but also reliability and affordability. But of course Commissioner Carr should know that we don’t have that information at the federal level, because I’m sure he objects to the collection of prices and other information. Despite the many instances where providers have lied to the Commission by presenting the areas in which they offer services, Carr in itself takes issue with local evidence gathered through interviews to understand where broadband really is.
A prediction: it’s not a problem
It’s remarkable how much performative horror Commissioner Carr expresses at the prospect of a city like Baltimore using some of the bailout dollars to make sure its families in public housing are on the internet, even whether a cable company could theoretically sell them the Internet. access for $75/month, or provide subsidized service if they jump through all the right hoops. Compare that to the silence of the commissioner when it became clear that the biggest phone companies took billions of dollars in broadband subsidies and perhaps forgot to upgrade their services.
SLFRF Treasury rules give appropriate deference to local and state leaders to act in a complete vacuum of information about what is available to each household. Commissioner Carr is deeply worried — because the biggest cable and phone companies are deeply worried — that some places are using those dollars to build networks that are either unnecessary or would create too much competition for existing companies.
My prediction is that communities won’t. Of course, it’s not zero: a cardinal rule for dealing with large numbers of humans is that there are always outliers. But of the cities that allocate some of their SLFRF dollars to broadband infrastructure, they will overwhelmingly focus on areas where there are real issues with the affordability and reliability of existing services. The reality is that very few of these investments will result in material losses for existing ISPs, but monopoly providers know that even modestly opening the door to locally built and operated infrastructure driven by community solutions could open the floodgates to the competition they so afraid of.
Commissioner Carr spent years as one of the few people who could fix the FCC’s abysmal failure to collect useful information about broadband deployments. The rest of us had to move on and figure out how to work in the absence of data. The best option is to enable local decision-making where they can gather evidence and take action. And most importantly, they will have to take responsibility for their actions and lack of action in a way that FCC commissioners often don’t.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Network Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Its job is to help communities ensure that the telecommunications networks on which they depend are accountable to the community. It was honored as one of the 2012 Top 25 in Public Sector Technology by Government Technology, which annually honors the nation’s top “Doers, Drivers, and Dreamers.” This article was originally published on MuniNetworks.org on January 20, 2022 and is reprinted with permission.
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