The only thing worse than living a constantly-connected life with high-speed internet and 4G cell phone reception bombarding you with information every second of the day is (maybe) not having the option of having anxiety-inducing high-speed internet and 4G cell reception at all. For better or worse, we live in an age where most jobs, from package delivery to running a pyramid scheme, require being able to access information and people at a moment’s notice.
It’s hard, however, to convince cell carriers and internet service providers to provide people in sparsely populated, low-income areas with these basic prerequisites of modernity. In the part of rural western North Carolina where I grew up, there was (and to my knowledge, remains) a single cell phone carrier in the area, and you have to drive to the Big City — i.e., the town 30 minutes away that has a Wal-Mart — in order to sign up for service. Reception is terrible out there, and it’s not uncommon to get lost in a thicket of country backroads because your reception dropped off and Google Maps has no idea what’s going on. Similarly, until a year ago it was virtually impossible for me to be working on a Google Doc with a few tabs open if someone else in the house was online. Our connection was too slow to handle it, and our internet service provider (ISP) lacked the physical infrastructure to offer anything faster. (They have since laid new cable and my parents’ internet is now fast enough for my dad to stream episodes of Star Trek off Amazon Prime.)
Part of the problem facing places like the one I grew up in lies in the cold logic of corporate economics: there aren’t enough people living there for a internet or cell provider with its bottom line in mind to justify shelling out for more expansive coverage, because they won’t get as good of a return on their investment as, say, covering a big city. (The fact that we discuss companies such as Verizon and AT&T, the annual gross incomes of which average between $50 to $60 billion and $80 to $90 billion, respectively, as if they operate on the same margins you and I do is very much part of the problem.)
And so these areas remain underserved, creating a self-perpetuating cycle where young people and move to cities where they can do totally normal young people stuff like Skype into work meetings while driving, order GrubHub from the restaurant two blocks away while illegally torrenting every season of The Sopranos, or play Fortnite for 75 hours straight and then pay their resulting hospital bill with Venmo. I’m kidding about the specifics here, but my point is that it’s hard to keep young people from leaving a struggling area when the “digital infrastructure” consists of leasing a thousand-dollar phone from a cell phone company that’s going to charge you $80 a month for a data plan you can only take advantage of when you drive into the town that has the Wal-Mart (see above). This certainly isn’t the only reason these areas are struggling, but it’s not exactly making rural America’s other problems easier to solve.
You, the reader, may be wondering why the government does not step in and do something about this. Besides the obvious answer of “Trump hates poor people :-(,” generally government agencies are staffed by at least some people who genuinely care about helping people and try to do something about this situation. Indeed, the Federal Communications Commissions, which is supposed to govern this sort of stuff, has specific funds — $2 billion for ISP’s and $4.5 billion for mobile carriers, respectively — earmarked for paying carriers to boost their coverage in rural areas. This seems like a convoluted softball compared to what the FCC could be doing — companies like Verizon and AT&T already have more than enough money; why not just fine the shit out of them for depriving people of the internet and/or phone service? — but its relative inefficiency is made vastly worse by the fact that the FCC determines which areas qualify for subsidies through data about existing access to coverage that’s wildly inaccurate.
In December, a Microsoft research project determined that contrary to the FCC’s claim that only 25 million Americans lacked “access” to broadband internet, roughly 113 million people — one in three Americans — don’t actually use it. That means there could be millions of people for whom high-speed internet is technically available, but is too expensive or too impractical to actually sign up for.
As easy as it is to cite anecdotal evidence about this connectivity gap, it’s difficult to come by hard data about this stuff. Even when a consortium of Democratic and Republican senators sent a strongly worded letter to the FCC criticizing them for claiming that there’s 4G cell service in areas where there isn’t, the best they could do was cite that they had “consistently traveled throughout rural areas in our states” and had not personally discovered this mythical extant 4G reception.
One of the problems, unfortunately, is that the FCC’s cell connectivity maps are created from data submitted by cell phone companies themselves, who have a tendency to vastly overstate their coverage areas. After all, if you’re the only cellular provider in the area and you’re already charging for a plan that only works in half the places your customers live, you’re effectively getting free money in exchange for nothing. (Tired: Getting paid by the government to give your customers the thing you’re supposed to give them. Wired: Getting paid by your customers to give them the thing you’re supposed to give them and just not giving it to them.)
The senators’ case was strengthened last month, however, when the state of Vermont published the findings of a study that put the FCC’s official wireless coverage map — which, again, is what helps determine which areas get government money to bribe cell phone companies into giving them normal, non-exceptional cell service — to the test. It turns out the data submitted by mobile carriers does indeed vastly over-state how much cell service you can get in Vermont! This was enough for Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner at the FCC, who yesterday morning tweeted out the study with an admonishment of her own agency, writing, “Our national wireless broadband maps are broken. It's time for the @FCC to fix them.”
Having an accurate picture of who’s online and who isn’t is only the first step in providing all Americans with more connected lives, of course. Telecoms and ISPs essentially get away with highway robbery (sometimes literally so, like when you’re on a stretch of highway and can’t make a call), and like many businesses that offer technologies newer than the laws meant to govern them, our current system fails to hold them accountable in a meaningful way. But hey, at least somebody at the FCC has officially acknowledged that when it comes to a lack of cell reception in rural areas, we have no idea who’s getting screwed and how.
Also, nationalize the internet.