After years of political pressure on antitrust control of big tech companies, Congress and the US government delivered this month. The House's Antitrust Subcommittee released a report accusing Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook of monopoly behavior. The Justice Department filed a complaint against Google alleging the company prevented consumers from testing other search engines.
The new passion for tech antitrust law has so far overlooked an equally obvious goal: US broadband providers. "If you want to talk about the history of using gatekeeper power to harm competitors, there are few better examples," said Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for technology law and policy.
Sohn and other critics of the four companies that dominate US broadband – Verizon, Comcast, Charter Communications, and AT&T – argue that antitrust action has been required for years to lower prices and expand Internet access. Microsoft's analysis last year found that 162.8 million Americans were not using the Internet at broadband speeds (42.8 million didn't have meaningful broadband), and the New America Open Technology Institute recently found that US consumers were on average more than pay those in Europe, Asia or anywhere else in North America.
The coronavirus pandemic has given America's gaping digital divide more bite. Children without reliable internet had to cut bandwidth outside of libraries and taco bells to do virtual schoolwork. In April, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that one in five parents with children whose schools had been closed by coronavirus felt they were unlikely to be able to complete schoolwork at home due to insufficient internet connection.
Such issues are arguably more substantial than some of the antitrust issues that Washington recently raised. The Justice Department's complaint against Google argues that the company's payments to Apple to make its search engine the default on the iPhone make it difficult for consumers to choose a competing search provider. For tens of millions of Americans, switching broadband providers is even more difficult – it requires moving. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which funds community broadband projects, recently estimated, using data from the Federal Communications Commission, that approximately 80 million Americans can only get high-speed broadband services from one provider.
"Cable operators intend to do this," says Susan Crawford, professor at Harvard Law School. "These companies take rent from Americans because of their monopoly."
The United States has suffered from and disbanded telecommunications monopolies in the past. AT&T had a government-approved monopoly for much of the 20th century until it was dissolved in 1984. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 contained rules for telephone providers designed to encourage competition, but excluded “information services” and allowed broadband companies to run wild.
"Much more could come to the surface"
Crawford and other industry critics say cable companies took advantage of this freedom to undermine choice through mergers and installed a deep bank of lobbyists to steer lawmakers, facilitate scrutiny and prohibit cities from building their own networks. Cities that have done this, like Wilson, North Carolina, generally have faster speeds with lower prices and less restrictive terms, Crawford says. According to OpenSecrets, Comcast spent more than $ 10 million lobbying in Washington this year. Only two other companies, Amazon and Facebook, have spent more.
US ISPs say the US broadband market is doing well and the digital divide is closing. Business is doing well this pandemic year, with US providers adding 2.4 million additional subscribers from January to June as school, work and social life shifted online.
A Comcast spokesman said the company is not a monopoly and is competing with at least one other high-speed carrier "in almost every area we do". According to the charter, it spent $ 25 billion from 2017 to 2019 and made the service available to millions of new homes. AT&T and Verizon referred WIRED to USTelecom, an industry group that recently released an analysis of the FCC data showing that household broadband prices have fallen over the past five years.
Comcast and Charter cited a Facebook-paid report by the Economist Intelligence Unit that puts the US at the top of the world's list for Internet affordability. The ranking is based on the cost of mobile and broadband services and the cost of smartphones, and the full methodology is unclear. A Wall Street Journal analysis of 3,300 broadband bills last year found prices broadly similar to those reported by New America and concluded that prices were higher in places with less competition.
The House Subcommittee on Justice and Antitrust did not respond to requests for comment. Georgetown's son, a former FCC employee, said she had spoken to subcommittee staff about the broadband market and hoped they would be interested in it.
US oversight of US internet service providers has shrunk under the Trump administration. In 2017, the agency abandoned the net neutrality rules that required ISPs to treat traffic from different sources equally. The Government Accountability Office and two of the agency's own commissioners have questioned the FCC's method of measuring broadband access, painting an artificially rosy picture of the US market. The agency had allowed ISPs to count an entire census block as broadband access if the service was available to an individual resident, even if that resident had not signed up, but has since voted to require ISPs to provide geomaps.
If Joe Biden wins the White House, he is likely to try to restore the FCC's net neutrality rules. The democratic platform also includes promises to have the agency review broadband prices and prevent states from blocking municipal broadband networks.
Joshua Stager, a senior policy advisor at the New America Open Technology Institute, would also expect a democratically controlled Congress to consider expanding subsidized broadband programming during the pandemic.
To make US broadband far more competitive, the White House and Congress would have to take bigger and more coordinated action. Options to consider include reversing some of the acquisitions that made Comcast and others nationwide giants and obliging companies to allow competitors to use their networks, as is common in Europe, says Stager.
That would be more notable antitrust action than seen by the US government in a while, but Stager believes the case is there. "The backlog of evidence is certainly there, and much more could come to the surface as the pressure on the networks increases," he says.
Disclosure: The Advance / Newhouse partnership, which owns 13 percent of the charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.
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