Tech Policy Tribalism

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. By making all the world’s information available to all of us all the time, the Internet was supposed to help us make more rational choices, informed by science and checked with the relevant experts. But we have so much information that we can’t sift through it, so we cherry-pick the facts that agree with our innate biases and end up just as confused as ever, only with more certainty. So information overload means more tribalism.

That’s a hot word right now: the US is number two in Google searches for the definition of tribalism, behind only South Africa were it’s a somewhat different topic. Andrew Sullivan has written a super lengthy piece on tribalism for New York magazine, and commenters on the NFL protests are framing reactions as assertions of tribal identity, the patriots vs. the critics.

Tribalism and Net Neutrality

This is nothing new in tech policy, where controversies are rarely about what they seem to be about. From the rational policy wonk’s point of view, net neutrality is a discussion about how to regulate large firms so they don’t use their assets to extract monopoly rents and harm innovators.

But when the great unwashed get into the discussion, net neutrality becomes the Internet’s First Amendment and a leveler of the playing field that allows mom-and-pop businesses to compete directly with Amazon.

So have to find some way to discuss the policy options with policy makers against the background of noisy protests on the part of people who cannot possibly be pleased by the outcome of the debate. No matter what the FCC and the Congress do, mom and pop are not going to take Amazon down.

Well capitalized firms with decades of investment behind them are always going to have a leg up on small upstarts.

A Tribal View of Connecting America

“Why 23 million Americans don’t have fast internet” in Vox is a good example of the cherry-picking, spin, and outright falsehood that characterizes the tribalist approach to Internet policy. The article doesn’t have much substance and only serves to introduce a short video that can only be characterized as advocacy.

As we frequently see in discussions of Internet non-adopters, the video sweeps up the people who could get an Internet connection today if they wanted with the ones who can’t. That’s even done in the title: nearly all of the people who don’t have fast Internet could have it if they chose to subscribe. The exceptions are the people who simply can’t afford it.

The proposed solution, a nationwide effort to build new rural networks, doesn’t actually address the issues that keep poor people off the Internet. The “not able to pay” group is in an entirely different condition than the “can’t find anything to buy” group.

Well-worn Clichés

Rural America, says Vox, needs high-speed broadband for “telehealth services, global market access, and education benefits.” Fair enough, but what do they mean by “high speed broadband?” We know that 12 – 15 Mbps  broadband service by any medium – wire, mobile, fixed location wireless or satellite – will enable us to use these applications. For practical purposes, any of these options will do but Vox rules them all out as “not high speed broadband enough.”

They do this by falling back on the Wheeler definition of broadband at 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. But that definition doesn’t really apply to the applications in question. 3 Mbps up is pretty marginal for a telehealth service that relies on Skype-like video calling, and 25 Mbps down is overkill. The same goes for remote schooling.

So we’re playing a little game here. We have an inappropriate regulatory definition of “high speed broadband” which tribal journalists can use to create the entirely false impression that satellite, fixed wireless, mobile, and 15/5 DSL can’t support critical applications.

Eyes Glaze over Before We See the Lede

To its credit, the Vox article does acknowledge the basic truth about the Internet’s Unconnected: they just aren’t into the Internet.

There is also the need to educate rural users about the opportunities that broadband can provide. Although it might surprise many city dwellers, the leading reasons for why rural Americans aren’t online don’t have to do with money. Instead, “don’t need” and “not interested” rank above financial concerns.

So what does a nationwide construction project have to do with this issue? We could drain the treasury for shiny new rural networks without making a dent in this fundamental issue.

Unless, of course, the Unconnected hear about the project and decide maybe his Internet thing is worthwhile after all. But this is a pretty expensive way to get people’s attention.

The Video is Nonsense

The video bemoans the fact that all American Internet service is not the same, but that’s always going to be true. I don’t have the same service quality as my neighbors because I choose to pay twice as much as they do for a “business class” cable service that has no caps and is supposed to be more reliable than consumer grade service. Given its poor reliability, I pity my neighbors.

It stresses the 25/3 Wheeler Standard without discussing its shortcomings (the fact that 25 down is more than we need for most activities and 3 up is not enough for many.) It completely fails to mention that the average mobile service in the US, 8 Mbps up and 23 down, is actually better than a wired connection that narrowly conforms to the Wheeler Standard.

It shows a coverage map that’s riddled with holes – in places where nobody lives – and clucks about the omissions. And it tries to make broadband out to be a cause for college degrees and high incomes, when the causality goes in the other direction.

Vox falsely claims that wireless networks don’t need cables in the ground like cable service does. It correctly asserts that fixed wireless is a good solution in rural areas but falsely claims it’s less reliable. Out here in the Front Range of the Rockies where winter means high winds, my experience has been just the opposite. I use my cell phone to report service outages to the cable company, and have never once used my cable phone service to report an LTE outage.

Broadband Outperforms the REA

Things really get deep when the video touches on speculative projects using drones, balloons, and TV white spaces and then turns to the electrification projects run by the Rural Electrification Agency in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s as touchstones of sound public policy. Within a few decades, the video says, all of America got electric power thanks to co-ops funded by that agency.

But the truth is that rural broadband, like rural electricity, is a problem that has been addressed by a number of approaches: some private, some public, some co-ops, and some subsidized. There’s really no meaningful difference awaiting an REA-like magic bullet.

Broadband is significantly different from electricity because there are many ways to deliver it, with new ones appearing all the time. The video even mentions some of them, but fails to grasp their importance. It alleges that Trump both increased and scaled back Obama Administration broadband subsidies at the same time, quite a trick.

Why is Broadband so Hard to Understand?

The purpose of the video appears just after the Trump Miracle, in what it terms the FCC’s “suggestion” that mobile broadband needs a definition. It currently has none, you see. Contrary to the video’s claim, the FCC hasn’t proposed changing the flawed definition of wired broadband. Like a rookie, the video’s author, Mac Schneider, confuses Akamai’s average connection speed (for mobile) with a broadband speed. See the Speedtest Global Index for a correct and accurate picture of mobile broadband speeds.

We already have subsidy programs for rural broadband. They’re not tremendously effective, but they show that broadband subsidy is not some marvelous new idea that nobody ever considered before.

The tribal forces of the left appear to be forming a drum circle around the idea that rural broadband is entirely screwed up in the US so we need to create thousands (presumably) of broadband coops to solve the problem in a few decades. I think we can do a lot better, but only if we can forget about the tribal identities and apply some reasoning informed by facts.