Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Internet users with the fewest options may lose the most from the FCC’s decision.
Net neutrality was probably never enough to keep the internet “free,” even before the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal it in December.
Already, some 129 million Americans—roughly 40 percent of the population—have only one option for broadband internet service where they live, according to a report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Among them, about 50 million are resigned to using a company that has broken the rules of net neutrality. These are providers that have run afoul of FCC regulations meant to keep web content fairly and equally accessible—they’ve hijacked user search entries, blocked video streaming services, and slowed down peer-to-peer file-sharing, among other offenses. And for Americans who can shop between multiple service providers, 50 million have to choose between just two companies with violations on their records.
Now, with the FCC scrapping Obama-era internet regulations, the users with the most to lose may be the ones who had few options to begin with. See how stark the landscape of non-competition looks: Casey Miller, a data visualization specialist at Mapbox, a mapping software startup based in San Francisco, has mapped every internet service provider and option available for 11 million Census blocks across the U.S.
In denser parts of big cities, it’s easy to find as many as four or five ISP offerings. (Curiously, in downtown Chicago, the diversity of access seems to vary a lot from block to block.) But those options dry up the further you move from urban centers. Most of Columbus, Ohio—which is positioning itself as a tech capital of the Midwest—has to choose between two or three ISPs. It’s worse in Fresno, the seventh-largest city in California. Large swaths of the population are getting unWired broadband or nothing.
The data may not be fully up to date, says Miller: The FCC says its files were last updated in November 2017, but there are some locations where available internet services are even fewer than what’s shown here. (The reverse is likely true, too.)
Mapping the FCC data drives home the stakes of the net neutrality debate, Miller said. Millions of people subscribe to whatever choice they have without thinking too much about it, or how it might affect them in the future. “But what that means is, you can’t switch, unless you move,” Miller said. “If you only have one option, you really are at the mercy of your provider.”
What might that mean? According to the many opponents of the FCC’s decision, monopolistic internet service providers could contort the web into a pay-to-play hierarchy of informational access. The agency’s chairman, Ajit Pai, and his supporters insist that ISPs will speed up and expand connections once unburdened of costly regulations.
Reality will most likely land somewhere in between. But many analysts agree that the average internet customer will see payments creep up over time, as service providers “bundle” their own online media properties separately from others and charge premium prices for out-of-network content. (Verizon has acquired Yahoo; Comcast partly owns Hulu; AT&T has special deals with HBO, for example.) And removing regulations is unlikely to encourage new broadband connections in underserved communities—there’s just not enough competition.