Telecom's Latest Dumb Claim: The Internet Only Works During A Pandemic Because We Killed Net Neutrality

from the particularly-bad-arguments dept

A few weeks ago, a new talking point popped up among telecom policy pundits opposed to net neutrality. They began claiming that the only reason the internet hasn’t buckled during the pandemic was thanks to the FCC’s controversial and unpopular net neutrality repeal. That repeal, you’ll recall, not only killed net neutrality, but much of the FCC’s ability to hold ISPs accountable for pretty much anything, including outright billing fraud.

But to hear various net neutrality opponents tell it, the repeal is the primary reason the US internet hasn’t fallen apart during COVID-19 quarantine:

“We should thank our lucky stars that Title II net neutrality regulations were repealed by the FCC in 2017. In doing so, the US avoided the fate of much of Europe today, where broadband networks are strained and suffering from a lack of investment and innovation.”

Except none of this is true. This entire narrative is fantasy — built almost entirely off of the EU simply asking various streaming companies to throttle certain services in an abundance of caution. There remains no evidence that this was due to any serious problems, and, at the same time, there’s been no evidence that US networks have measurably outperformed their EU counterparts (indeed, many of the companies that throttled services in the EU did so in the US as well). Investment at many US ISPs actually dropped post net neutrality repeal. And there’s literally no indication that US networks are somehow “more robust” than the EU because the FCC decided to ignore the public and obliterate its own authority at the behest of the telecom lobby. It’s just not a supportable claim.

In fact, networks in China and Italy, like here in the States, have (with a few exceptions) held up reasonably well under the massive load of telecommuting and home learning. Not because of net neutrality policy, but because network engineers are generally good at their jobs. While there have been some network problems, they’re usually of the “last mile” variety in both the EU and US. As in, because of limited competition, your ISP never upgraded that “last mile” to your house, leaving you stuck on a DSL line from around 2007 that struggles to handle Zoom teleconferencing particularly well.

The claim that the EU was suffering some kind of exceptional congestion problems appears to have originated among some EU regulators who simply urged Netflix to reduce bandwidth consumption by 25% to pre-emptively help lighten the load. There was no supporting public evidence provided of actual harm. The move was precautionary, and may not have even been necessary. Somehow this flimsy base was used as the foundation of the claim that because the EU passed some fairly basic and inconsistent net neutrality rules, it suffered more network headaches than the US.

But if you look at Ookla’s data of how networks have held up around the globe, you see that the US appears to have performed at about the same level as other places. Here’s the US:

There’s a small dip in mid-March as a lot of the country began to shut down, but no massive problems. On that, everyone seems to agree. But to hear the various anti-net neutrality folks tell it, the EU was struggling to keep its network up and running. But… uh, the data doesn’t show that at all:

In Germany, France, and Spain you see that download speeds actually jumped up before eventually doing a small dip as those countries locked down. There isn’t enough evidence to make a definitive claim, but if we were to argue using the same points raised by critics of net neutrality, Looking at all that, you might even be able to make the argument that EU broadband providers handled this situation better and more quickly than the US.

None of this has stopped the telecom sector and its allies from embracing this whole flimsy argument anyway. In a speech at the Inter American Development Bank last week, FCC boss Ajit Pai made, albeit more subtly, similar claims:

“In the end, I believe trusting the markets rather than solely relying on mandates resulted in more consumer-friendly policies than we would have achieved with a more heavy-handed government intervention, and I know that we were able to make these changes more quickly. I?d also argue that the general regulatory approach that we have in the United States have applied to the broadband marketplace gave us much stronger infrastructure in the first place, as it gave companies the incentives to invest in resilient, robust networks that could withstand unprecedented consumer demands.”

Again though, Pai’s not telling the truth. US broadband investment didn’t magically improve due to the net neutrality repeal, no matter how many times he makes the claim. In fact, AT&T and Comcast dropped overall CAPEX despite massive deregulation and billions in tax cuts. There’s zero evidence any of this industry ass-kissing made US networks more resilient to a pandemic. In fact, respected former FCC advisors like Gigi Sohn have argued that gutting FCC authority over ISPs has made it harder than ever to hold them accountable for bad behavior, pandemic or otherwise.

Using a pandemic to justify regulatory capture is grotesque, especially given there’s just no evidence to support the claims being made here. That didn’t stop FCC General Counsel Tom Johnson, who also tweeted out his support for a new Wall Street Journal opinion column (not coincidentally) making most of the same claims:

Notice how the telecom industry doesn’t even have to publicly make these false claims, because they’ve got think tankers and government employees now doing it for them. These arguments are rife with cherry picking and selective reasoning (for example you’ll see none of these folks highlighting how EU consumers pay far less for broadband than those in the US, in part because regulators are generally more active when it comes to protecting competition and consumer welfare). The Wall Street Journal story also suggests that US networks are more resilient to COVID-19 thanks to killing net neutrality, broadband privacy rules, and other “heavy handed” US telecom consumer protections:

“In Europe, networks have struggled to meet bandwidth demand, leading officials to ask popular services such as Netflix and YouTube to degrade the quality of their streaming video from high definition to standard definition. U.S. networks have faced fewer problems adjusting to the increase in demand. Public policy explains the different outcomes. The European Union has embraced a heavy-handed regulatory scheme designed to allocate access to the existing network, while the U.S. has emphasized private investment to expand network capacity.”

But again, there’s no evidence that European networks have fallen apart during the COVID-19 crisis. Or that any differences in performance have anything to do with deregulation or net neutrality. Netflix’s decision to throttle back its bandwidth usage by 25% was done entirely pro-actively. There was no underlying network data provided by regulators to justify the move. It was just EU regulators being cautious (perhaps overly so).

Indeed, similar steps have been taken here in the States. YouTube for example has downgraded video quality to conserve bandwidth. So has game platform Steam, which is slowing some game downloads. You can’t selectively highlight the EU’s efforts on this front then ignore the US ones because it supports your flimsy narrative. Well I guess you can, but you should be laughed at.

It takes a particular type of person to look at a brutal pandemic and think that it provides a wonderful opportunity to justify one of the most controversial, scandal prone, and fact-averse regulatory policy decisions in modern history. Using COVID-19 to justify mindless telecom sector coddling sets a new, even lower bar for a sector whose argumentative integrity was already at ankle height.

So why do it? It’s a distraction from several things the sector would prefer you not pay attention to. One being that an estimated 42 million Americans still can’t access broadband during a pandemic, and millions more can’t afford service because of a lack of competition among regionally power monopolies. They’d also really like it if you forgot how the FCC ignored the public, made up a bunch of data, and ignored a whole bunch of fraud to gut oversight of one of the most problematic business sectors in America–leaving consumers and regulators alike on precarious footing in the wake of an historic global crisis.

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Comments on “Telecom's Latest Dumb Claim: The Internet Only Works During A Pandemic Because We Killed Net Neutrality”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
hij (profile) says:

No mention about access?

Mr. Pai is conveniently ignoring the students who were sent home but are struggling to keep up with their classes because they lack access to broadband. Students who cannot get access at home have been forced to go to public places and expose themselves and their families. Students should not be forced to rely on Chik Fil A to complete their school work.

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JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as "peak bullshit". They can always pile it higher. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that bullshit is the one material that could pile high enough to make a space elevator. 😉

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"In fact, I’d hazard a guess that bullshit is the one material that could pile high enough to make a space elevator. ;)"

Extraterrestrial #1 to Extraterrestrial #2: They used WHAT to bootstrap their space exploration?!"

I keep saying the logical indication there’s intelligent life out there is because after listening to our broadcasts they aren’t coming here.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

... nah, coincidence I'm sure

It’s just ever so telling that to date the only arguments against network neutrality are either flat out lies, misrepresentations, and/or cherry-picking of the data. Why, it’s almost enough to make you think that there are no good arguments against network neutrality, but I’m sure none have been presented to date is just a coincidence, or the arguments are just so amazing that they must be kept from the public at all costs, lest they be presented and heads start literally exploding from the amazing truth.

This comment has been deemed funny by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

not coincidence at all!

The facts advocates of net neutrality don’t want you to know:

–Net neutrality causes mutations that increase the risks of 17 separate forms of cancer or carcinoma.

–Net neutrality exacerbates global warming. Seas (and most lakes larger than 146 km sq.) would be boiling for 3 months out of every year, most of Florida would be rendered uninhabitable, and fall fashion lines would suffer significant sales drops, leading to unemployed marketers in major cities (and unemployed 6-cent-per-hour sweatshop sweatshirt factories in tropical countries). Atlantic City would become a tourist attraction.

–Net neutrality is one of four preconditions for the rise of Chthulhu; the other three conditions are imminent in isolated communities across the U.S.; and there are already 17 communities where two conditions are simultaneously present.

–Net neutrality could force Mickey Mouse and Rapsody in Blue into the public domain. Creative artists everywhere would contract tuberculosis and die starving in the streets. People who couldn’t read both words and music would be locked out of performing gigs and forced to seek careers in politics.

But science is hard, and people don’t want to hear the truth, so they just read those blogs that whinge on and on about how many legs is good or bad. It’s enough to make you want to take up basketweaving or flintknapping as a career.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: not coincidence at all!

"Net neutrality is one of four preconditions for the rise of Chthulhu"

Yeah, the Elder Things invented net neutrality and their ancient civilization was eradicated overnight. The Great Race fled their own bodies through time itself just to evade the horrors of net neutrality.

And there’s a reason they call Abdul Alhazred the "Mad" arab. Just sayin.

But you try telling that to a bunch of pencilneck yankee nerds and they plain won’t believe ya. Sad.

/s …because Poe is the third law of thermodynamics these days.

ECA (profile) says:

The old phone system...

It interesting that some things are being forgotten.
Not long ago Regular Phone service was curtailed During the day time, to favor corporations and companies Over the Citizens..
Citizens had to pay extra to use phones during the day.
Anyone remember Cellphones, and using them in the day, cost you more, then after 6-8pm??
When the Internet REALLY hit in the late 1990’s, the phone system was setup with a 6% usage rate, that at any time, the max Use of the system never got over 6% of the people/business’s Used. When the NET HIT, not just Dialup BBS’s which we had used since the 80’s, They had to UP the hardware and Lay new phone lines ALL OVER.. to over a 80+% usage rate.

But event he phone companies and the cable companies will tell you that during the Noon-5pm time frames is the highest usage time. After the corps shut down it is <1/2 the use. Corps use it for everything Now. from Phones, to interoffice WAN systems around the country and internationally..

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Anonymous Coward says:

Not quite business as usual...

Just my perspective as someone who works in the VoIP industry – the last couple months have been pretty awful for us. While Netflix will still load under less than ideal conditions, a real-time service falls apart with high latency / jitter and packet loss. The networks in the US have been noticably degraded recently. Just today was a large outage with NTT and Level3. 3 hours of routing loops and effective 100% loss to multiple destinations.

Regardless of the net neutrality arguments, the US networks are NOT handling this increase in traffic with no impacts to service levels.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Not quite business as usual...

"…a real-time service falls apart with high latency / jitter and packet loss."

"…Regardless of the net neutrality arguments, the US networks are NOT handling this increase in traffic with no impacts to service levels."

I’d argue that the lack of net neutrality is a high contributor to increase in jitter and latency. When router packet priority uses a list based on intended address or origin rather than the packet protocol flag actual bandwidth will be less affected than having your TCP/IP handshakes continually delegated to the bottom of the list.

That the US network backbone relies on decrepit and badly maintained tech probably doesn’t help either.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not quite business as usual...

Just my perspective as someone who works in the VoIP industry – the last couple months have been pretty awful for us. While Netflix will still load under less than ideal conditions, a real-time service falls apart with high latency / jitter and packet loss.

That’s VoIP for you. It was designed, read: co-opted, to make it cheap to connect the old POTS trunking system in for the telcos. Not to make a reliable internet protocol. That’s why you need 5 mostly random ports per client to make it work. It’s a real time protocol designed for dedicated circuit-switched networks being run on a delays-and-retransmissions-are-inevitable packet-switched shared network. Hell, VoIP used to be deployed with it’s own infrastructure despite using the same equipment as computer workstations for this exact reason. Of course the slightest change in network utilization will degrade it. The protocol isn’t designed to handle the type of network it’s being run on.

The networks in the US have been noticably degraded recently.

What did you expect? The major US ISPs have refused for years to roll out infrastructure upgrades. Despite receiving taxpayer money specifically meant for said upgrades. The major US ISPs have also oversold their capacity for years, and as reported here previously, have successfully lobbied to remove governmental oversight of their activities. Of course if you suddenly throw the entire country into said system all at once it will buckle. What else was it going to do?

Ironically this failure of infrastructure is also causing delays for the next round of would be rentseekers in the form of the videogame industry. Whom I bet is dying over the fact that Animal Crossing has to be sold right now. An entire country at home with shelter in place orders and nothing better to do than rent their games is the videogame industry’s wet dream.

Regardless of the net neutrality arguments, the US networks are NOT handling this increase in traffic with no impacts to service levels.

Even with Net Neutrality the networks would not handle it well. Commercially, it makes no economic sense to have the level of service required to handle a nationwide shutdown like this. The only way it would is if the majority of the US stayed home under normal conditions. I.e. When no major health threat is present. The vast majority of the US population does not do that, on the contrary many of them are going stir crazy at the moment, so the level of infrastructure to support it does not exist either.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Fake comment

"I didn’t write that, Bode did."

Of course you didn’t write it. What you might have written, based on prior evidence, might be a long wordwall with terminology which simply implied a pending orgasm.

That people take pains to show up and parody you consistently probably means your opinions are just considered laughable enough to consistently parody.

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Ian W (profile) says:

Just look "up" ...

Americans probably get really tired of looking up to their northern neighbors: free health care, actually available covid-19 testing, people getting COVID relief cheques (and in bigger amounts than expected), a coherent leader, AND really damn good internet and mobile data …

Canada’s 4G Download Speeds are performing extremely well under the demands of COVID-19 according to Opensignal’s Mobile Experience report during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From a TELUS new release,
Canada fared best across 45 countries tested for 4G download speeds for mobile experience and had virtually no change between January, and the last week of March, when all Canadians were following social distancing protocols.

From OpenSignal’s report, "North American Opensignal users did not observe any significant changes in their 4G Download Speeds between the last week of January and the fourth week of March", it should be noted the average speeds were:

  • Canada – 61.6 Mbps
  • Mexico – 23.9 Mbps
  • USA – 26.8 Mbps

Canada’s western provinces have also had available Gigabit Fibre (FTTH) to the home since 2010 and is broadly available in most major cities across every province, occasionally with competing (non-cable) providers, as well as cable competition.

Canadians do pay a premium, but it’s there and it works.

We’re doing all right up here; thanks for checking in on us.

ps: Our Covid-19 numbers are doing reasonably well too.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Just look "up" ...

It’s just impossible to tell for sure nowadays. I have had similar arguments with people in real life, more than once having to fend off an angry idiot customer who doesn’t understand why they can’t just have any URL they want, who thinks that shouting louder will magically make registration requirements disappear.

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Ian W (profile) says:

Re: Re: Just look "up" ...

That’s correct, you will never find Canada is an independent country, not the 51st state. Thus we would never qualify for a dotgov domain, not that we’d want to (except maybe back in 1812).

Wikipedia even references Canada as an example:

The gov domain is administered by the General Services Administration (GSA), an independent agency of the United States federal government.

The U.S. is the only country that has a government-specific top-level domain in addition to its country-code top-level domain … Other countries typically delegate a second-level domain for this purpose; for example, is the second-level domain for the Government of Canada and all subdomains.

Feel free to visit the Government of Canada at or, or when the world’s longest un-militarized border is reopened to non-essential travel, come see the real thing. ps: we also do not have a 2nd Amendment, so please leave your fireams at home.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

How do they explain it still working everywhere else where net neutrality has not been in question?

"In doing so, the US avoided the fate of much of Europe today"

Oh, by making shit up. Shocking.

For what it’s worth, I just did a quick speed test – my 600Mbps fibre connection is showing 510Mbps download today, a little below advertised but effectively zero difference for what I use it for. I’ve also not noticed any actual image quality drop on any streaming site I use (though I admittedly don’t use 4K), and I still don’t have a bandwidth cap of any kind on there.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

""In doing so, the US avoided the fate of much of Europe today""

"Oh, by making shit up. Shocking."

Well, not as such. The US has indeed avoided the fate of europe – having a fully functional internet – quite well.
It’s impressive, really. The FCC have accomplished, using mere legislation, what it took Iran a guy with scissors at the national network trunk to do.

Pai is applauding the invention of the non-material etherkiller. Progress of a sort, i guess?

ECA (profile) says:

Expecting much?

From the USA corps, the Home of the Capitalist system, and Cutting all strings to Controls of said markets..
Is like asking (40 years ago) how many fish a person ‘gone fishing caught’.. WE knew the limits, it was just a nice Day and couldnt stop, or ‘It was Thissss big’.

The Lies about the system have been around since Cellphones Started. And the FCC had a few words with the corps and nothing was done to enforce ‘NOT LYING".. "Oh, Thats what we will have int he next 6 months", Dont mean you can cover the Whole nation in RED, and you only have service in 1 state.
They will not, and never have created a 100% coverage of the Whole nation, from the old phone system onwards.
Which would be a great thing to take to court, if it werent beyond legal Time limits.
AND I WOULD LOVE, that the major corps, including Hotels, Airlines, and soforth NOT get Paid for the epidemic..
They are, they will be. But the whole thing would have been just as bad, if we all got sick. The employees not getting to work, then the boss’s, then the customers.. In the end, it would have cost just as much in medical from those companies.

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