Future Tense

The Broadband Turf Wars Are Hurting Rural Communities

White and blue light emits from fiber optic cables.
Denny Müller/Unsplash

East Carroll Parish, in Louisiana, is a small rural place, mostly agricultural, built on land that was once used for cotton plantations. About 7,200 people live there now. More than one-third of them below the poverty line, and more than half the households lack broadband internet access.

This summer, a group called Delta Interfaith had what looked like a major victory in the internet turf wars: They found a rural company, Connexon Connect, willing to provide fast internet to East Carroll Parish. Louisiana’s governor announced money to help. Residents were thrilled. But then, at the last minute, a billion-dollar internet service provider, Sparklight, threw a wrench in the deal. Now, the East Carroll Parish community are locked in a David and Goliath fight to get fast internet.

On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Issie Lapowsky, chief correspondent at Protocol, about why a giant company is standing in the way of a small community getting online, and how that playbook is being repeated across the country. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: Part of the process of allowing a new internet provider to come into an area is a period of time when an existing provider can lodge a protest, basically saying, “Hey, we already provide adequate service here.” On the last day of the protest window, Sparklight protested the grant with the state’s broadband authority, saying the money shouldn’t go to East Carroll and Connexon. Why can an ISP file a protest?

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Issie Lapowsky: This is money that’s set aside for the most un-served or underserved areas of Louisiana. The protest policy exists so that you don’t have a bunch of people trying to get this money to serve a place that already has a thousand options to choose from, which is a rarity in the United States where we have a lot of telecom monopolies. But that’s the sort of best-case scenario. The cynic would say that these protest periods exist because telecom companies have lobbied for them. Telecom companies have swooped in and said, “You’re not going to give us a whole bunch of competition in our area. At least give us a chance to have our say when you’re going to give this kind of money out.”

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I want to back up a little bit and explain the protest process and what a company like Sparklight gets out of that. If they file a protest, are they saying, “No, no, we can come in and we should get this grant money”?

They’re not actually competing for the grant. They’re saying, “We already serve or could serve this area.” So they’re not even having to say, “We already serve all 900 of these homes.” They’re saying that, “If those 900 homes wanted our service, we could provide it to them.”

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And yet residents in your story clearly have said that the internet options that they have are substandard. What are their options?

They have the option of Sparklight. They have the option of AT&T. And when COVID hit, this is how desperate the community was, they went out searching for another provider because these providers were not adequate for the needs that people had to be logged onto Zoom and doing virtual school.

Because they cost so much?

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Because they cost so much, or because in some cases, it’s old, slow. One former school teacher in the area told me, some folks are being asked to paid $140 for dial-up. So it’s just not really feasible.

Those people were almost utterly at the mercy of large ISPs, like Sparklight, and whether the companies wanted to provide workable service to the area. What is the relationship between these communities and ISPs?

These companies have a lot of power, at least more power than a small, poor rural community is going to have. These are the companies that are lobbying state houses across the country, not only for more preferable protest laws, but for a whole bunch of things. And so they have relationships, they have sway, they have incumbency status. Luckily, there are some really smart people in East Carroll Parish who have known what to do. They sent out these digital navigators to all of these homes in the area to conduct speed tests, to say, “Look, we actually are not getting the service we need. We have the proof right here.” And they submit it with Connexon’s application. But not every community knows to do that. Not every community has the resources to do that.

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Sparklight rejected multiple bids to improve internet service in the parish, and yet it doesn’t want another company to come in and provide adequate internet. Can you make sense of that?

It’s just corporate incentives. If a company doesn’t have to provide better service, if it doesn’t have to build out in an area and if it doesn’t see how that would necessarily serve their business or drive their profits, then why would they?

Campaigns like Sparklight’s may soon play out across the country. Congress set aside $42.5 billion dollars in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law to bring broadband to un-served and underserved areas like East Carroll Parish, which means state regulators could help millions of under-connected Americans get onlineunless these internet turf wars stop them. Some states have been proactive fending off last minute protests. How have they done that?

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Some experts I spoke to talked about other states that have implemented policies where, for instance, there is no such thing as protesting a grant after it’s been awarded. There are other states where if you are trying to challenge somebody’s application and you are successful, you don’t get to just rest on your laurels: You actually have to provide service at the same price and speed that the applicant was applying for. There are other states that punish challengers if they successfully defeat an application and then turns out they don’t provide service there. They won’t be able to challenge again for another couple grant cycles.

Is this something
big ISPs do a lot?

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Yes. What I’ve heard is that this is very common, it’s happening everywhere. But the reason I wrote about this situation in East Carroll was really, first of all, the sort of inspiring story of the grassroots movement there, and also the peculiar nature of the 11th-hour protest. These protests are very common, but they are happening over the course of months. They’re happening shortly after applications go out. Having this protest come on the seventh day was such a peculiar circumstance, such a letdown for the community and evidence of these stalling tactics.

We’re talking about $4 million here in East Carroll, but there’s about to be $42 billion on the table for states to invest in broadband infrastructure. So yes, this is happening all the time, but it’s going to get a lot worse. It’s going to get a lot more ferocious. And it’s really time for states to start thinking about the possibility that this is in the playbook and writing rules to defend against it.

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There are a lot of East Carrolls across America. According to the Agriculture Department, 22 percent of rural Americans and almost 28 percent of Americans living in tribal lands don’t have fast broadband.

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Then you have to think about not just rural areas that need better broadband, but urban areas that also don’t have access to maybe the affordable options that they need, or are just as a function of redlining, have never been offered the competitive pricing or speeds that wealthier areas are.

A narrative that is sometimes put forward when we think about the digital divide is, “It’s just a thing that happened. And whoops, this is how it is. But when I read your reporting, it seems very much like something that is planned, or is at least a predictable consequence of large company actions. How would you describe why these broadband deserts exist?

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If you are a telecom company, it’s very capital-intensive upfront. And then, if you have a really sparsely populated area or a really poor customer base, how do you get your money back? If you’re having to offer low-cost internet to affordable housing complexes, or if you’re having to offer affordable internet to vast farmland where only a few homes live, or maybe there’s one business, it’s really hard to get your money back. So I think it is about the profit incentives.

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How important is the outcome of the Sparklight protest? If the state broadband authority in Louisiana rules in favor of Sparklight, what does that mean for these other rural areas across the state or the country who are trying to get their reliable internet access?

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For the people of East Carroll, for the 851 locations that are supposed to be served by this grant, it makes a huge difference in their lives. They say, “If we don’t get the money from the state, this $4 million, we’ll keep fighting, we’ll try to find it anywhere.” But what does this mean for other areas? I think this is a really interesting test case. If the state, which is led by a Democratic governor who has already come to town and promised this to these people, can’t approve this money going to the provider that wants to give service to those people, that isn’t very encouraging for what happens in other rural states.

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I had always had the somewhat naive assumption that more money put toward connecting unconnected communities would immediately solve the problem. But now it seems so much more complicated than that, and there’s a whole political and lobbying apparatus that exists behind this. Do you see this as a simple equation, or something more complex?

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Everybody cheers and plans the parade when President Biden signs into law this thing that says $42 billion in funding is going toward closing the digital divide. And that is a huge accomplishment, but it’s a whole ’nother thing to see that money actually get out the door and to see it actually get spent in the places where it’s supposed to get spent. Sparklight would say, “We’re mounting this protesting in good faith. And we want to see this money spent in an area where it’s really needed. There are plenty of areas of need in Louisiana, East Carroll Parish is not one of them.” The people who live there beg to differ. But what is often the subject of our attention and our celebration is just crossing that finish line to get the money. Then, all of these negotiations and protests that stand in the way of this money actually being spent, happen quietly. And in a lot of places, it’s really hard to track, and yet it’s no less important because that’s how the money is actually making a difference.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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