EDITORIAL: High-speed broadband should be a public utility

The onset and continuation of the coronavirus pandemic have relentlessly exposed now-unmistakable flaws in the social fabric and critical infrastructure of states and towns across the U.S.

In West Virginia, we have long known of these issues—the struggles to access necessary health care, the seemingly inescapable disease of addiction, the lack of serious political will to end rampant homelessness and income inequality.

An increasingly prevalent inclusion on this list is the issue of accessing high-speed broadband, or any form of internet connection at all.

 We all understand that access to a reliable internet connection is practically essential, particularly in the weird, digital “workplaces“ which have become typical in the post-COVID world.

Today, being unable to access the internet means being unable to perform your job, being unable to put food on the table, being unable to pay the bills.

For young people, being unable to access the internet may also mean being forced to drop out of college or being unable to access classwork and attend class sessions with teachers and fellow students.

It could not be more clear: access to high-speed internet connection is essential right now, for millions of West Virginians at least, and tens of thousands who live in Cabell County.

Nevertheless, the telecommunications corporations capable of providing West Virginians access to the internet—such as ComCast—are fighting relentlessly to ensure we will not acquire such access.

“At a critical time when we are trying to improve high-speed broadband and the economic outlook of our community, Comcast is attempting to squash us like a bug,” Huntington Mayor Steve Williams stated Monday via social media.

Williams stated that the City of Huntington, for the past seven years, has been working on a plan to provide high-speed broadband to all Huntington residents. The city, along with Sen. Robert Plymale, has partnered with a nonprofit organization called Thundercloud.

Through Thundercloud, various other entities such as Marshall University, Marshall Health and Mountain Health Network have worked to apply for a $2.5 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. Gov. Jim Justice also has written letters to the Commission expressing his support for the grant.

Now, Williams and Plymale stated, Comcast and corporate telecommunications lobbyists have begun working to ensure that we, as West Virginians, never see the benefits of the potential grant.

“Unfortunately, we are learning that Comcast, which only provides a fraction of the level of high-speed broadband that they claim to provide, is actively trying to torpedo this project and our grant application,” Williams stated. “Every Comcast subscriber in the Huntington service area can relate to what I am now experiencing with this company—frustration. The private sector has just not stepped up to provide adequate, affordable high-speed broadband in greater Huntington, and we find it extremely frustrating that they are fighting our efforts at progress now.”

Williams stated he is calling for a public hearing to investigate whether Comcast and other telecommunications companies are being honest about the services they claim to provide and to allow locals to provide their perspectives on the issue.

I think our perspective is clear.

All our lives, we have been sold the lie that perpetuating capitalism and allowing money-hungry corporations like Comcast to operate privately and without regulation is necessary for encouraging “innovation,” and “choice” and “competition.”

But now we see the opposite is true. We know the horror stories. These corporations do not encourage innovation and progress, they prevent them. We have no choice but to accept what they give us and to pay what they demand, regardless of quality of service. There is no competition.

Comcast and other telecommunications corporations such as Suddenlink frequently abuse their power and capital to set up monopolies on local markets for essentials such as high-speed internet connections, directly and intentionally preventing any form of competition in the market or choice for consumers.

The sole goal of these corporations is to make money—NOT to breed innovation or to ensure a wide variety of choices for consumers, and they have long revealed that when a decision is to be made to value profits or to value progress, they will choose profit every single time. They are inherently corrupt and not to be trusted or relied upon.

At some point, we have to realize that some things are essential for living in the modern world, and allowing corporations to exploit these things—and ourselves as people—for the sole purpose of turning a profit is deeply nonsensical and immoral.

We need to stop letting greedy corporations take advantage of us. In this case, we must make high-speed broadband a public utility.