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Whose Job Is It to Fix My Shitty Internet Service — the Government, or My Service Provider?

This should be an easy question to answer, but the reality is mind-bogglingly complex — we broke it down as simply as possible

There’s a digital divide going on, and the tyranny of Zoom meetings in the year of coronavirus has really exposed it. A lot of it has to do with how good — or lousy — your internet service provider’s network infrastructure is in your own neighborhood. But who fixes the internet? Whose job is it to repair an outdated mess of wires and cables running underground in your neighborhood, or strung up along utility poles — the government, or your internet provider? How’s all this work? And why do some networks just suck in the first place? Alongside Ron Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Information School, who specializes in internet architecture and network infrastructure, we patched together some answers.

Who fixes the internet, then? Like, who actually handles the internet connection to my house?

Yeah, about that: Johnson says it’s… a bit complicated. “You can read a number of books on this and still not have exhausted the complexities of how infrastructure works in America,” he explains. “That said, there’s a couple of simple ideas behind it.” 

Great! What are they?

Well, if it’s a line- or wire-based system, that obviously requires wires, and that means that somebody’s got to have a right of way to bring a wire down the street and into your home. Communities around the country differ wildly in how easy that is to actually do, Johnson says.

For one thing, whatever regulatory district we’re talking about — it may not be the city or even the county, but rather the state or the federal government via the FCC — has its own permitting processes. Some of these processes make it extremely difficult to run buried cables to people’s houses, or they might have different kinds of rules on who can put what up on a utility pole.

Difficult how?

It can be onerously expensive to put up lines in some parts of the country, and inexpensive to do so in others. The price of putting down (or up) cables is part of the cost structure of any internet service provider, and guess what? You’ll never believe this, but the cost of doing so will be passed onto you, the consumer. Shocking, right? 

Indeed. So some communities just make it a pain in the ass to do all this?

Yeah. Google Fiber, which rode into a lot of towns in the past decade promising to bridge the digital divide as a local ISP, eventually threw up their hands because communities were making it so difficult to lay down fiber (Google denied it was about seeking tax breaks, which, hurrm). But if Google, whose parent company is currently valued at approximately a kajillion dollars, threw in the towel, you can understand the degree of difficulty.

Why make it so hard?

“If you’re a community, a homeowner or neighborhood, do you want people constantly digging up your streets?” Johnson asks. “Do you want them running more and more wires on the poles? Most people don’t. It’s an eyesore and an inconvenience.” On the other hand, he explains, if a community makes it difficult, then it’s difficult for companies to run the fiber or the copper cables that are required to provide you with internet services. 

Are we talking about money here? We’re talking about money here, right?

You bet! If your city decides to tax this sort of thing heavily — to make it an expensive process to rent space on a utility pole or to get a permit — then it’s going to be a more expensive proposition for an internet service provider to install anything. “In which case,” Johnson says, “they’ll probably under-engineer it rather than properly engineer it, simply because the way they’ll look at it is, are we going to generate profit on this over our investment period? And the kind of system that gets deployed is going to be based on that projection.”

Is that why my internet sucks?

Yes — as Johnson points out, these are profit-making enterprises, and they’re going to build (or not build) whatever makes them a profit. If that results in a shitty network due to expensive regulations, so be it. The cost will always be passed along to the consumer. It’s not easy for competition to come in under those circumstances anyway!

Is it about tax revenue, too?

In some cases. But in others, some communities won’t allow utility poles, for example, instead requiring that all lines be underground, which is a much more expensive process for an internet service provider than hanging wires on poles. Permitting this stuff isn’t a revenue generator everywhere, though — Johnson says in some places it’s just cost-based and they don’t mark it up. In others, it’s a tax source as well as a way of controlling building and zoning.

Figuring all of this out is really complicated stuff for a national provider like, say, Comcast. With all sorts of different cost structures all over the country, they blend them all together into their overall cost picture and then try to generate enough sales at different price points in order to generate a profit, which, Johnson says, isn’t easy to do.

But aren’t these fibers just run along the same spaces as telephone lines and power lines and stuff like that?

Yep — in fact, your internet connection is generally run along the same telephone-line easements in your neighborhood granted decades ago to the old, monopolistic version of AT&T, or those granted for gas pipelines or to the local electric company. Likewise, most of this stuff is run between cities along railroad tracks, Johnson says, the reason being that railroads were often built in the shortest distance between cities — they were expensive to build, so they basically drew a line and made it as straight as they could. Piggybacking on these same public easements along railroads, as well as in your neighborhood, makes them the cheapest path for everyone, including internet service providers, with the fewest components required, the fewest ditches needing to be dug, and so on.

Are we at the mercy of big companies for internet connectivity forever?

No, not necessarily. Johnson says there are a lot of municipal networks now — started by cities, or the local public utility district or electric company — that have a community-owned infrastructure as an alternative to the more predatory internet service providers. Although, Johnson says, they’re sometimes no better or cheaper than the big boys.

But again, when it comes to who fixes the internet, this stuff varies wildly, depending on exactly where you live. If you’re blessed with an internet service provider that over-engineers its network, or live in a place that offers a kind and friendly municipal network, don’t take it for granted! For everyone else, the digital divide remains uncrossable for now.