Why millions of Americans still lack broadband at a time when it's no longer optional
16:00

Why millions of Americans still lack broadband at a time when it's no longer optional

Tech Industry
It's 2021. And we can certainly agree on one thing, broadband is now as essential, as electricity or water. No exaggeration there. The problem is we know in America, millions still don't have access to broadband. The problem is we don't know exactly how many millions. We don't exactly know where they are. And we don't know how we would get it to them, once we figure those things out. Now what? [MUSIC] Joining me are two of my colleagues from CNET Maggie Reardon and Shara Tibken, who both are doing really interesting stories for a multi week broadband package we're doing I think it's the first time we've taken a deep long look at this since 2018, So we're coming back at it now in a very different era. And let me start with you Shara. Very interesting question, which is, how do we know, or do we know, how many people are lacking broadband and where they are? Yeah, this is a huge, huge problem as we're trying to solve the digital divide. The issue is that we don't. Really know where the gaps are. There's kind of a sense of where kind of big pockets without Connect conductivity were in the past. But once we're getting to the level of kind of street addresses where your neighbor may have broadband but you don't we can't identify that This kind of goes back to the way the FCC has mapped broadband for over a decade. It has looked at it at the census block level, which could be, you know, a city block, but it could be several miles out in the country. There is now an effort to make sure that these maps become more granular because if we don't know where the problems are, none of this gets solved. So that suggests to me that this is not so simple as saying, look, people who live way out in the boonies are lacking it. And that's the story. It' sounds like it's a lot more complicated than that. Yeah, it's way more complicated than that. And this isn't just a rural problem either. This does happen in suburban areas in urban areas. And you were telling me, the FCC pretty consistently underestimates the broadband gap. And it's kind of been a known issue. Basically since the FCC first started. Looking at these maps, everybody knows that they have problems. You know, this is one of the few things that Congress can agree on is that these maps need to be fixed. You know, and because of that, we're seeing the service providers being willing to share a little bit more information and, you know, now they're being ordered to share some more information just to make sure that these are more granular. So instead of seeing, hey, half of New Mexico doesn't have broadband. You can see It's actually this tiny corner of this. This tribal land doesn't have it at all. You know, or this other area doesn't. They said in January that basically if you consider satellite the whole country has broadband. [LAUGH] Well that's, We all know that that is not true. That's it. That's not that's not real good. Yeah. You shared some numbers of me before the show that were really interesting. FCC would say about 14 million don't have broadband. Microsoft looks at some of their server stats and says over 150 million are getting online at very slow speeds like maybe 20 year old standards of broadband if that and then broadband now which monitors this stuff says 42 million may be the number that don't have it. How on earth can the numbers be so wide? These companies and entities are all kind of looking at different things. So in the case of Microsoft, what they're trying to do is kind of more of a passive measurement. So they're not asking people to report their speeds. They're not asking the service providers to report their speeds. What they're doing is looking at the actual speeds for when people are downloading security updates or you know, accessing Microsoft software. You know, broadband meant now is kind of combining different factors with with, you know, FCC data, but also they're doing, you know, speed testing. You know, we've seen some states use speed testing as a way to kind of crowdsource availability and speeds. And then with the FCC, what they require is these providers to say where they could provide service within 10 business days.Not necessarily that they do have service there. I think part of it too is like Shara was saying like, if you're only getting. Data from one source which is self reported by the ISP is, then you know, you could potentially be missing what's really happening on the ground and I think that there is a recognition that that's what's happening. And and what we're seeing now is they're saying When we need to, like make the blocks smaller so we can get more granular but we need to take in data from from more stakeholders and more folks on the ground to see what's really happening. So I'm hoping that that they're really going to improve this unfortunately, it's going to take a while because it's a complicated problem to even just get the maps right. So I don't see anything really coming out of This until probably next year, at the earliest. So, it's a tough problem to solve, but you can't solve it if you don't know what's happening. Yeah, that seems like such a fundamental building blocks and one of the first things I think most of us would do that I did is I pulled up one of these annual FCC broadband reports and looked at some of the numbers there. And they can paint a pretty rosy picture from these, should they wish. On the other hand, what struck me was that mobile broadband seems to be penetrating and growing faster than fixed broadband. Do you think that mobile is really the way we're gonna solve whatever broadband divided we end up measuring. My feeling on this is no [LAUGH]. We need fixed broadband, right? I mean, there's nothing that's going to give you faster service or gonna be more future-proof than fiber in the ground. And I think that there's a recognition among some Folks that's true. I think everybody's always afraid that it's going to cost too much to do that. But you know, 5G, and wireless is not going to get us out of this problem because it's not really it's not gonna give us the speeds and the reliability that folks need what people want is 100 megabits. Right, nobody wants the 25 MB that the FCC is actually defining as broadband. I mean, that seems antiquated at this time. That's interesting, people have to realize when you see some of these numbers a fixed terrestrial broadband is 25 down and 3 MB up. That was pretty impressive ten years ago, today you have two people in a household on Zoom, maybe even one, And that simply isn't working. You're already starting to just hit real world limits. The pandemic has really shown people that everybody's on Zoom. Their kids are on Zoom, right? They know what it means to have Like bad latency metrics, right? Like they know when they're talking over each other on a zoom call that that's because there's something wrong with the broadband, right? So people get it now. And I think they're hungry for it. They want it they need it. We've also seen some of the providers respond to this. A Comcast Offers its internet essentials program for students and low income people to get online. And there was a lot of outcry from, students basically saying. Hey, we can't take zoom classes. We can't be, doing remote school when we're getting 25 three. So Comcast increased it to 55. If a company like that, provider, that are typically more resistant to, increase, minimums like this was willing to do that I think there's going to be a real push over the coming years to redefine what is broadband. Yet the 5G providers swore up and down that they can deliver bit rates to the premise that are equal or better than anything fiber or cable. Once everything's built out Everybody who's working on 5G talks about this as an opportunity, but some of the places where you have issues with broadband you also have issues with cellular. I spoke to a woman in Maine for my story and where she lives, she gets three downs You know, she says her kids will come over and try to get her to watch Netflix and then they realise that she just can't. You know, she feels like she's missing out on a whole thing that the country is sharing and frankly, the world is sharing because she just can't get basic internet. She's a nurse, she's trying to teach nursing students online and, you know, everything has to be off or she goes and sits in her car outside of a library. This is the way that 5G works and they're really fast. 5G has a lot of problems. Right now. It can't go through windows. It can't travel very far. They're these companies. It's very expensive to build out 5G, so places that they there isn't a huge density, they're not gonna be putting Putting the super fast version of 5G you know,this isn't going to solve the problem in some of these places. You know, wireless is only wireless for like a short while and it has to go somewhere into the ground or over, a wire [LAUGH] on a utility pole. So, I mean, it has to get to the fiber at some point. So the further that you push out the fiber The better all these modes are and if you have to use wireless to get to that last mile, that's an option then. But if you don't have fiber deep enough into the community and into these remote areas, you're never going to get there. Yeah, key point that fiber backhaul is what makes 5G where people just think 5G arrives out of nowhere. Like a sunflower and just blooms. It's like no, it's a fiber based technology oddly enough, and yet it seems to me, do I have this wrong that fiber, kind of came and had its golden era, and is faded Google Fiber and fire hose, they didn't take over. Anywhere near the market share, I think that they were expected to, Is there a place here for a new renaissance of fibre? it seems to come in waves like fibre gets hyped and then people are like, It's too expensive. We can't do it. But the reality is it always comes back To the fiber. And I think really what the issue is here is we've gotta get the public policy right. And Maggie, you're also reporting a story about a utility in Mississippi, as I understand it, that got some pandemic support funds from the CARES Act and was able to use those to become a broadband provider with apparently great results, as I understand it. He's electric co ops have changed the wall in Mississippi so that they can now offer broadband and they're using funding from the federal government from the state to, to kickstart an effort to get to areas. That traditional providers just didn't wanna go to because they couldn't make any money at it. And so, you've got to make the business case for these folks and you've got electric co ops that they've done this before, right. They electrified the company in the country. In the 1920s and 30s And they did it, based upon good public policy. And it's interesting because what happened in Mississippi is, we had the pandemic hit, and we had the cares act, and there was all this money that was given to the states and Mississippi got a good chunk of it, and they were already kind of teed up to start allowing these electric co ops to start Delivering broadband. So the legislature went to these companies and said, What do you guys need? We're going to try to give you some of this money to do it. And they did. And so these guys have gone out there they It was like basically pouring gasoline onto a fire and you know, somebody said to me, like he used to have to go out and like make the case to people like no, you really, do you really need broadband. He's like, I don't have to do that anymore. Imagine being someone living in that area and how much your life changes when you go literally from zero to 60 in terms of internet, you know, almost overnight. And then think about the possibilities to what does it mean for economic growth for a place like that. And to distribute this economy so it's not so centered in these few areas around the country. ��To allow high value work to happen in a lot of areas around the country that's a pet thing for me is that we've got such a concentration of the best jobs that rely on broadband in many cases as well as the best schooling and all the rest, who ruled in a few overweight areas around the country.�� I think you really have to, again, think about what is the public policy here and we started to see this happen. A couple of years ago with the FCC, really recognizing that they were giving out tones and tones of money to solve rural broadband problem. And it wasn't getting them any where because a lot of their money was going to Incumbent providers, you know, and they just kept giving him the money to do like basically nothing right so they weren't getting anywhere with that. So they were thinking like, let's we need to encourage wireless providers, we need to encourage some of these. Electric co-ops, for example, that we hadn't ever thought to give federal subsidies to or under the rules weren't eligible for this money. And so, they created programs now, and we just ended the first phase of the World Digital Opportunity Fund, which was an auction to basically figure out Who could go to areas of the country that are underserved and promise to provide them service. And again, it's interesting, Mississippi ended the first phase of this auction in terms of winning the awards for the subsidies. They came in second After California if you get the public policy right and you get the money into the hands of providers who are actually going to do it, you're probably going to get a lot more bang for your buck Shara. Let me ask you something that's coming up as I listen to Maggie is internet is regulated differently than phone service was that really caused it to get built out or utilities talk to any utility? They'll say yeah, we have to serve everyone. There's no question. There's no discussion of who do we serve? That's a given. Same thing with phone service. And yet the internet from its earliest days back in the 90s, when there was a lot of battling over this, is regulated differently. Do you think that that's coming home to roost now? I think that tech is overall is facing it facing questions about how much they should be regulated. If we see the battles with the antitrust battles with Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, all of these companies, the government is starting to look at Tech and say, what made sense 10 years ago maybe doesn't make sense now. It's the same with the internet does it makes sense did what we had before makes sense, or does this need to be a utility? You know, if you look at some other countries it's so cheap to get online, your services cheap, you know, gigs on on your cell services cheap, home Services cheap. But here it can still be really expensive and affordability is a huge problem for the digital divide. There's lots of pockets of the US where people don't have service because they can't afford it. Not because there's not service available. So really kind of looking at this issue. I think it's gonna be a big focus over the coming years and trying to figure out, you know, what do we do to make sure that everyone can access this? You know, the pandemic has shown more than anything that we have to have this you can't really exist in modern society today without being able to be online And be online at a high level. And that's what I think is so interesting. So we're talking about broadband. We're talking about high quality broadband, which is not exactly what's being measured by the FCC anymore and its stats and we're talking about affordability. As these three things that intersect that, I think is a big refresh since the last time we looked at this comprehensively, when you the team looked at it in 2018. So this is a really good package for everyone to take a look at. We encourage you to check this as it's running for several weeks. By the way, our CNET reporters, including Shara Tibken and Maggie Reardon, both senior reporters at CNET Contributing to it join us on cnet.com and get your head wrapped around the new digital divide the new broadband divide that 2020 and the pandemic era has really brought to the fore.

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