This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.
Home internet is one of the most maddening services in the United States. But since the pandemic showed just how bad things have become, we’re beginning to see some change.
Decades of one failed policy show how far the U.S. has to go to achieve better, fairer online access for all.
Over the past two decades, government regulators have written and rewritten rules that have landed on a straightforward goal: that Americans who live in apartment buildings may pick their internet provider, even if the landlord has a preferred provider. In many cases, that provider pays for the privilege.
The idea is that if tenants have choices for internet service providers — as Americans often do with mobile phone companies or grocery stores — they’re more likely to find the product that they want at a fair price.
But all this time, apartment owners and large internet service companies have found ways around the government rules. They have effectively blocked upstart internet companies from many buildings. Regulators know this, but not much has changed.
Last month, the F.C.C. took out its pencils again. On paper, people who live in apartments and public housing complexes will have more information and power to pick their own internet provider, no matter what their landlord wants. We’ll see.
The government’s failure to achieve in practice what it demands in principle is a microcosm of America’s stinky internet.
The U.S. has an illusion of free-market competition in internet service. There’s a lot of government regulation, but it isn’t particularly effective. This double whammy of dysfunction holds back the U.S. economy, wastes taxpayer and consumer money and shuts many Americans out of modern life.
The result: Americans pay more for worse internet service than our peers in most rich countries. About 15 million Americans, or more, lack modern internet access; the system is so muddled that we don’t know exactly how many. Many others can’t afford it.
There is a sense of urgency to fix these problems. The pandemic has awakened more U.S. policymakers and the public to the necessity of internet service and the ways in which the current system fails us. Fresh congressional funding and changes in technology are enabling new approaches to connecting Americans.
This momentum will be wasted, however, if government officials can’t enforce the rules of competition, including for the roughly one-third of Americans who live in apartments.
The F.C.C. apartment rules are “a cautionary tale,” said Greg Guice, director of government affairs for the public interest group Public Knowledge. “If you’re going to say you’re fixing a problem, then you need to make sure you’re fixing the problem.”
In apartments, internet service providers need building owners’ permission to install their equipment to hook up tenants. In theory, landlords must have a good excuse to say no. They often don’t.
Genna Veksler, co-founder of the small internet provider Brooklyn Fiber, told me that he regularly receives calls from potential customers in apartment buildings but is turned down by property managers who cite a list of objections.
They worry about construction dust or disruption from installing a new company’s internet lines — although Veksler said that Brooklyn Fiber could wire homes with relatively little fuss. Building officials also say that tenants don’t need more than one internet option.
Veksler doesn’t bother raising the F.C.C.’s rules with landlords because Brooklyn Fiber doesn’t have the money to handle it the American way: by hiring lawyers. “That’s not a fight we can win; therefore, it’s not a fight worth waging,” Veksler said.
Veksler, Guice and others who want better and more fair internet service in the U.S. are nevertheless cautiously optimistic that the F.C.C. can give apartment residents more choices, if the agency has bite behind its rules.
After San Francisco passed a law in 2016 tightening rules for tenants’ internet choices, city attorneys made it clear what the potential penalties were if apartment owners didn’t comply, said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. The punishments included lawsuits that could be filed by the city, service providers or tenants. It seemed to work.
After two years of urgency and action, people who are hardened by years of U.S. internet dysfunction are torn between hope and pessimism.
“Big change like this doesn’t come fast, and it’s never easy,” said Virginia Lam Abrams, who oversees government affairs for the internet provider Starry. But, she said, “we have an opportunity to actually fix things that have been broken for a long time.”
Before we go …
Government lawyers have questions for TikTok: Several state attorneys general started an investigation into whether TikTok contributes to mental and physical harms for teens and young adults, Cecilia Kang reports. Instagram has faced similar questions.
Related: The U.S. surgeon general requested that major tech companies submit information about the scale and sources of misinformation about Covid-19.
A dramatic tale of an ace Ukrainian pilot who shot down several Russian fighter jets was shared widely online, including by Ukraine’s government. But it may be a myth, and one video montage was a rendering from a combat flight simulator. My colleagues Stuart A. Thompson and Davey Alba write about the jumble of fact and myth in the information war against Russia.
Related: Farhad Manjoo of New York Times Opinion writes, “Our fear of Russian domination over digital discourse may have always been a little overblown.”
Amazon is still not great at physical stores: Amazon will close more than 50 of its retail shops, including its bookstores and tchotchke outposts called Amazon 4-Star. My colleague Karen Weise writes that although Amazon has opened more supermarkets and other stores, company filings show their sales have waned.
Hugs to this
Check out this bobbing woodcock. Yes, it is supposed to look like that. (Thanks to my colleague Dodai Stewart for tweeting this one.)
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