Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford explains how America’s internet connectivity issues and corrosive infrastructure are holding the country back and how we can rally to fix it. She and Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel also discuss the Huawei scandal, politicians’ roles in improving broadband internet, and her new book Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution—and Why America Might Miss It.
You can listen to their discussion about the infrastructure of America’s internet in its entirety on The Vergecast right now. Below is a lightly edited excerpt from the interview.
Nilay Patel: The last time I talked to you, I think, was like 2007. It was the height of the net neutrality battle. You had just written a book about Comcast and NBC. I remember you very distinctly saying, “Comcast should be very happy that I’ve written this book because it makes a great case for their business.” Your entire approach was that they had become a monopoly, and they were vertically integrating content. And you’re saying it’s 10, 12 years later, that business is great, and they actually don’t need to invest anymore.
Susan Crawford: In fact, their capital expenditure is down from years in the past. They’ve spent their money. They’re just going to sort of soak their network and try to increase the number of premium services that they’re charging for. They have no incentive to expand their lines. And they have no incentive to do this upgrade to fiber. What’s happening is that they are able to pick off very rich areas and cities and then leave behind poor people in those cities and completely leave behind rural areas. So we’re suffering in this country from a number of intense digital divides.
One is between rural and urban. That’s pretty well-documented. The other, also well-known, is between poor people and richer people in America. The most scary of all, really, in this era of climate change and everything else going on around the world, is that our relevance as a nation is under threat because we’ve failed to take on this issue with leadership. We just haven’t done it.
NP: So just looking at the industry right now, every telecom company is trying in fits and starts to become a contact company.
NP: AT&T buys Time Warner, and it’s Comcast, NBC massive. I have to mention, by the way, that Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, which funds what we do here. But they don’t love me, so it’s not a big problem. I assure you, they’re not the biggest fans of me.
SC: Oh, and by the way, I have no clients or consulting arrangements, just to make that clear as well.
NP: See, you’re cleaner than me. My point is, that deal, years ago, you wrote about it and said this is a harbinger of things to come. We now live in a world where those things have come to pass at a massive scale.
SC: That’s right.
NP: But there are some failures here, just to challenge you on that. So Verizon tried to become a content company and disastrously failed in a number of ways. T-Mobile bought a TV company called Layer Three. This is the TV they’ve rolled out, and they have some partnership to do some other silly streaming thing on top of it that doesn’t seem like it’s going to go anywhere. It’s not like Sprint is doing it. It’s not like Charter and Spectrum are doing it. Why is it that these big ones are succeeding in this way, and it’s not happening as pervasively? That’s usually the pushback I get. You’re talking about Comcast, AT&T which are their own companies, but these other companies aren’t doing that thing.
SC: Look, the most important part of this story is actually the access network part. So look hard at what Verizon is up to. They have stepped back from wireline investment because their plan is for 5G to be a completely integrated and utterly controlled provider of very high premium fixed wireless services. And they’ll be able to pick and choose which services survive on their platform. That’s the whole point of 5G. All of those internet protocols that we fell in love with, they don’t function in the world of 5G.
This is a completely ad hoc-controlled thing from Verizon. It will allow them to sell smart city services, which are high premium. They’ll get a lot of money from that in metro areas. And it will allow them to pick off some wealthy people who would like their high-speed internet access connection in cities. So, in fact, Verizon does have a plan, which is to stay with wireless to really become a powerhouse in 5G in metro areas, and to, in that way, make more money from their existing assets.
NP: The amount of 5G hype that exists in this world… I just read it yesterday, and a talk I gave is a fake idea that everyone gets to put their own emotions on, like, an ink blot test.
NP: This was a room full of marketers that I was talking to, and they all just sort of nodded approvingly. Like “Yes, we can.” But you’re saying that 6H protocol is going to be built atop the internet infrastructure we have now and allow for more service discrimination to occur.
SC: Oh, absolutely. That’s the point. In fact, I saw a presentation in South Korea where a Korean telecom actually had on their slide “market domination,” that they’re sick of being commoditized as a dump pipe. They have other people making money from their infrastructure and 5G allows for that control.