Congress Keeps Asking Zuckerberg to Connect Rural America to the Internet

Senator Shelley Moore Capito and Representative Morgan Griffith each took time in the hearings to ask the Facebook CEO about his plans to expand rural broadband.

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Apr 11 2018, 6:29pm

Image: Kaleigh Rogers/Motherboard

Mark Zuckerberg has made no secret about his goals to operate internet infrastructure through Facebook, and at least a few members of Congress are keen on the idea. So keen that, in between questioning Zuckerberg about how his company failed to keep its users personal data secure, they asked the Facebook CEO if he would be interested in building their internet infrastructure.

“Next time you visit [West Virginia], if you would please bring some fiber because we don't have connectivity in our rural areas like we really need, and Facebook could really help us with that,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito during Tuesday’s data security hearing with a joint Senate committee.

Zuckerberg, cautious and stiff throughout most of the hearing, perked up at this prospect, telling Capito: “That's something that I'm very passionate about.”

Like Capito, Representative Morgan Griffith was all-too-eager on Wednesday to hear about how Facebook could rid his state—Virginia—of rural connectivity woes.

“I was excited to hear that you were excited about that and passionate about it,” Griffith said Wednesday during the House hearing with Zuckerberg. “My district is very similar to West Virginia as it borders it and we have a lot of rural areas. Can you also agree, yes or no, to update me on that when the information is available?”

Facebook first got into the internet infrastructure game a few years ago, and has a number of projects under way to develop cheaper technology to make it easier for rural areas to get connected. He highlighted these efforts in response to a question Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, too much of the internet infrastructure today is too expensive for the current business models of carriers to support a lot of rural communities with the quality of service that they deserve,” Zuckerberg said. “So we are building a number of specific technologies from planes that can beam down internet access to repeaters and mesh networks to make it so all of these communities can be served.”

It’s true that most ISPs don’t build infrastructure to rural communities because the cost would outweigh the reward. They wouldn’t get a return on the investment for decades, so they don’t bother. But Zuckerberg’s projects might not be the panacea that members of Congress hope. One of the company’s most high-profile examples, Internet.org, which offers free online access to a limited number of sites, has drawn a great deal of criticism. The biggest issue is that it limits what users can access, violating net neutrality, and some critics say it’s just an effort to mine valuable data from untapped communities.

The fact is, for all Zuckerberg’s philanthropic rhetoric, Facebook is a private, for-profit business. It has to make a profit, and any projects it pursues should be viewed through that lens.

If lawmakers really want to improve rural infrastructure in their state, there are plenty of options, such as investing in publicly-owned networks, and giving communities the power to build their own internet. Given that the hearing was supposed to be about whether or not the public can trust Facebook with their data, these other options might instill more confidence than handing over the keys to Facebook.

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