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AT&T Whines About Biden Focus On Community Broadband

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By Karl Bode

We noted how while the Biden broadband plan was arguably vague, a big part of its core focus was community broadband. In stark contrast to the Trump administration and GOP -- which think such efforts should be banned -- the Biden administration seems to recognize such efforts are a helpful and organic local response to market failure. While such efforts aren't a mystical panacea, they're a helpful way to both drive some needed regional broadband improvements to underserved areas, and force regional telecom monopolies to try just a little harder.

Enter AT&T, which historically has used every trick in the book to prevent community broadband from ever becoming mainstream. That has included dodgy telecom industry funded "studies" falsely claiming such networks are inevitable taxpayer boondoggles, as well as multi-decade support for terrible state laws restricting such efforts, even if locals voted for them.

Last week, AT&T CEO John Stankey, in an interview with the Economic Club, insisted that embracing community broadband (read: competition) was "misguided," claiming that it's not the government's job to get into the broadband business:

"It would be a shame that we take taxpayer money or ask local governments to go into a business that they don't run today," Stankey said. "You know, their job is to deliver water, patch streets, things like that, not be in a capital-intensive technology business that requires constant refresh and constant management."

Except these local governments aren't getting into the broadband industry because it's fun or they want to make Stankey cry. They're doing it because of a multi-decade market failure that has left countless US markets with a lack of broadband options, patchy service, high prices, and substandard customer service.

Stankey is also ignoring the fact that his company has received countless billions in subsidies, tax breaks, and regulatory favors in exchange for fiber networks the company routinely only half deploys. Most recently that included both a $42 billion Trump tax break and the repeal of net neutrality, both of which AT&T promised would result in soaring network investment and significant job growth. In reality, the opposite happened. Why? Because as an apathetic regional monopoly operating under regulatory capture, there's little to nothing prompting AT&T to actually try.

With the exception of local community broadband, that is.

Like most incumbent broadband executives, Stankey insists there is no US broadband problem that needs fixing, and that the 10 Mbps upstream speeds it offers in many markets is good enough:

"Stankey claimed there isn't much of a broadband problem to be solved, as networks "functioned incredibly well for the vast majority of citizens in the United States" during the pandemic. "Why would we want to go overbuild in areas where there's already great infrastructure?" Stankey said, saying that would be a "waste" of subsidy dollars."

Except we don't have "great infrastructure." The US remains largely mediocre on every developed nation broadband metric that matters (especially pricing). Despite decades of throwing billions of subsidies at giants like AT&T, up to 42 million Americans still lack access to broadband, with 83 million living under a monopoly (usually Comcast). It's fairly clear that lobotomizing our regulators then dumping billions into AT&T's lap isn't fixing the problem, but AT&T executives would greatly appreciate it if nobody noticed that.

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