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“We should thank our lucky stars that Title II net neutrality regulations were repealed by the FCC in 2017.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:
?2017: @FCC rejects utility-style regulation of Internet
?2019: D.C. Circuit upholds Restoring Internet Freedom Order
— Tom Johnson (@TomMJohnsonJr) April 15, 2020
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.