Let me start with an apology: reading other people’s tech support horror stories is less fun than hearing them describe their medical problems or recount their dreams. No one wants to hear them. While this starts as a tech support rant, I promise that it’s a much broader rant, about the state of infrastructure in rural America, the nature of corporate monopoly and the consequences of America’s naive faith in under-regulated markets. And if that sounds as painful as hearing me describe my knee pain, this would be a fine time to click the back button.
I live in a small town in western Massachusetts, and my only option for wired internet access is Verizon’s DSL service. I’ve been a customer for almost a decade and it’s decent much of the time, capable of streaming lores video from Netflix if no one else in the house is using the internet. About two weeks ago, it decayed sharply in quality, and I discovered that my connection was dropping 30-50% of packets. Once my six year old could no longer stream LEGO Ninjago, we’d reached panic time, and I called tech support.
After a few rounds of the usual “Have you tried rebooting the router?”, I got escalated to a team of very high level techies, the Presidential Appeals team, who politely and sympathetically told me the bad news: the problem was Verizon’s, not mine, and they weren’t going to fix it. Verizon had “oversold” the remote office that serviced my corner of town, and I and 208 customers were having the same problem. We were using way more bandwidth than Verizon’s network was providing to that office, saturating the T3 line that served the office, which meant all 209 of us were blocking each others’ packets and degrading each others’ service.
The math is pretty simple: Verizon’s DSL nominally offers up to 3Mbit/sec worth of bandwidth. A T3 provides 45 Mbit/sec of bandwidth, which means the line could accomodate 15 families using bandwidth at the highest possible level, or 30 simultaneous users at Netflix’s recommended broadband speed of 1.5 Mbit/sec. When these DSL networks were built, most people weren’t streaming video for hours at a time – now, we are. And the network simply can’t handle it.
“You guys need an OC3 minimum, and we should give that office an OC12 or OC24 if we were engineering for the future,” my new friend in tech support told me. “But there are no engineering orders to upgrade that line.” He went on to encourage me to complain to Verizon’s management through whatever channels I could. “We know we’re providing you with badly degraded service, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
That made me a little angry. While I’d gotten Verizon to refund my bill for my unusable service, 208 of my neighbors were paying full freight for service Verizon knew was crappy. And while the problem was solvable – install more bandwidth – Verizon had evidently decided that maintaining their infrastructure to support this load wasn’t a priority. So I sent some letters – to my State Senator, to the MassDCT (our telecoms regulator), to the Better Business Bureau, to the regional manager for external relations at Verizon. (All the government officials got back to me within 12 hours, though I never did hear from Verizon’s external relations executives.)
Things got weirder the next day. Another member of the Presidential Appeals team called me, this time for the billing department, and gently, apologetically laid out Verizon’s offer to me. They would be willing to cut my bill and have me as a fractional DSL consumer, with a projected download speed of 1Mbit/sec… or they would terminate my contract. Unfortunately, Verizon could no longer offer me DSL service.
Our local library. And town hall. And dog pound. And most reliable internet service provider.
I’d love to tell you that I told Verizon to pound sand, but as I mentioned, they have a monopoly. I could use an AT&T mobile hotspot, but the bandwidth costs get extreme pretty quickly. I could go back to satellite internet, but I still have nightmares of debugging it ten years ago, using a voltmeter to read line levels while on the phone with Hughes. And at this point, I was parking in the library of the Lanesboro, MA public library to use their lovely open wifi network, which offered a symmetric 5mbit connection, and only had the disadvantage of being four miles drive from my house. I agreed to have Verizon downgrade my service and became a fractional DSL customer.
At a moment when President Obama is promoting rural broadband, Verizon is deciding not to maintain their rural networks and let them degrade. While Republican governor Charlie Baker is investing state money in plans to provide broadband to businesses and homes in my community, Verizon has decided it is profitable to underserve their customers and invite them to quit if they don’t like the situation.
President Obama told an audience in rural Oklahoma that “The Internet is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. You cannot connect with today’s economy without access to the Internet.” Unfortunately, that necessity is not yet one Verizon is required to provide to rural residents. Despite the FCC’s reclassification of broadband internet service as a utility, Verizon is not legally required to offer broadband service to me or my neighbors and can choose to terminate my service, as the representative of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable patiently explained to me. “It’s not like local phone service, which they’re required to provide you with,” she explained.
So why is Verizon turning down my money? Why aren’t they building a network capable of supporting streaming video, Skype, Google Hangout and all the pleasures of modern, wired life? Well, it’s because they’re thinking of the future.
Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications have proposed a merger that would create a massive new cable company. My state senator’s office tells me that the new company has announced plans to offer cable internet service in my town, which would be great… in a few years, if the merger gets approved, and after they build out a network in our huge, sparsely populated town. Verizon knows that their DSL service can’t compete with cable internet, and they’re strategically underinvesting in our community. From a business perspective, it’s a smart thing for them to do – after all, where else am I going to go? How long can I idle my car in the library parking lot before the neighbors complain?
Americans, especially conservatives, like to celebrate the miracle of free market capitalism, the ways in which competition makes businesses more creative, nimble and efficient. But that’s a fairy tale, a story free marketeers tell their children to lull them to sleep. Building out a telecommunications network is extremely expensive, and the last thing companies want to do is find themselves in vigorous competition with another company that’s built out its own expensive network. So cable and telecommunications companies have come to a gentlemen’s agreement that’s good for their bottom lines and terrible for consumers – they politely stay out of each other’s territories, ensuring that connectivity is a monopoly in most markets and a duopoly in a few. Sure, that would be collusion, and the US government has the power to break up certain monopolies… but telecoms have great lobbying teams who’ve convinced legislators and regulators that 4G wireless service, which charges per bit, is a perfectly competitive alternative to unmetered wired broadband service. (Susan Crawford’s Captive Audience makes this argument far better than I ever could.)
It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s not in most of the world. Most governments realize that the heavy investment in infrastructure leads incumbents to try and protect monopolies, so they require operators to open their networks to competitors at cost. The result is competition, which leads to lower prices and better service. But it’s a carefully regulated market that gets you this competition, not an ideologically pure free one.
So why do Americans put up with internet that’s slower and more expensive than in Europe? Because we buy the lie that government regulation will raise prices and stifle (nonexistent) competition. Because we don’t know how embarrassingly bad American infrastructure is compared to most developed nations, unless we spend a lot of our time travelling. Because we feel politically powerless to change this situation, less able to influence our legislators than megacorporations are.
I think there’s another reason. For most people in the US, telecommunications is getting better. Slowly, expensively it’s getting better – people are cutting cord and cable and moving voice telephony and video viewing onto internet networks as they get access to faster and more reliable bandwidth. But that’s not what’s happening in Western Massachusetts, or in much of rural America. It’s getting worse for us, and right now, it’s very hard to see how it’s going to get better any time soon.
After a half-day outage Tuesday, my connectivity improved when I tested it early Wednesday morning. Perhaps throttling my connection will give me fewer dropped packets and my kid can watch streamed cartoons, pixelated, at 5fps. But now I know what Verizon has planned for me – service that gets worse and worse until I finally give up. Another reason for businesses to move to big cities, ignoring our beautiful landscape and quality of life because they can’t work without connectivity. More reasons for people who grow up in towns to leave the area to seek economic opportunity. More people in cities and suburbs with higher rents and longer commutes and more empty houses in the country.
For perfectly legal business reasons, Verizon has made a business decision that will slowly kill my town. And I’m helping by paying them.
Susan Crawford’s proposed solution to the cable/telephony duopoly is robust municipal broadband projects, as we’ve seen in cities like Santa Monica, CA and Chattanooga, TN. I agree that this is a great idea, and I’d sign up immediately if such service was available in my town. For now, Mass Broadband Institute, our state funded entity focused on rural broadband, has focused first on connectivity to libraries, schools and town buildings… which helps explain the great wifi on offer in the library’s parking lot. They’ve made less progress on home broadband, and lately, there’s been sparring between MBI and WiredWest, a cooperative that wants to build fiber networks in our small towns to solve the last mile problem. Susan is right, as she so often is, but it may be a very long time before the solution she proposes is available for me and my neighbors.
Good friend, and former Berkshire dweller Prof. Chad Orzel offers a quibble with my analysis:
That is, when @EthanZ writes that rural telecom is "getting worse" that's only true for people who've had it for a long time.
— Chad Orzel (@orzelc) February 4, 2016
Many of @EthanZ's 208 fellow rural DSL customers, though, have experienced an improvement from "no broadband" to "shitty broadband."
— Chad Orzel (@orzelc) February 4, 2016
Llong-time power users like @EthanZ see a degradation, but shitty broadband is better than none, and those folks see telecom improving.
— Chad Orzel (@orzelc) February 4, 2016
This complicates the politics a bit, and makes it harder to generate the outrage that would be needed to force change on monopolies.
— Chad Orzel (@orzelc) February 4, 2016
I think Chad is right when he notes that this complicates the politics – I think many of my neighbors are just grateful to have broadband that doesn’t come from flaky satellite connections. But it’s not quite the fact pattern. Basically, we’ve gone from no wired broadband to shitty broadband to unusably shitty broadband – at 40% packet loss, there’s really nothing you can do using streaming services, Skype or interactive web services – everything times out. For a couple years there, DSL + heavy compression made Netflix a reality. As more of my neighbors have gotten on the bandwagon, it’s just not an option these days, and I’m renewing my Netflix bits by DVD via mail service.