U.S. Broadband Speeds Jumped 90% in 2020. But No, It Had Nothing To Do With Killing Net Neutrality.

from the damned-lies-and-statistics dept

Last last week, a report out of the UK topped the trending news items at Hacker News. The report found that U.S. broadband speeds — historically the poster child for mediocrity — jumped roughly 90% during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The improvements weren’t consistent geographically, and the report was quick to note that by and large, the U.S. remains relatively mediocre when it comes to broadband speeds (in large part due to limited competition):

The US stills lags behind many European and developed nations worldwide, and its major cities also often lag behind their European equivalents. That said, there is cause for celebration in Dallas, Seattle and Austin, after our analysis has shown that these cities are performing extremely well relative to most European capital cities.”

I spoke briefly to study author Thomas Buck after he reached out to note that folks were misinterpreting his study. Yes, the study shows U.S. broadband speeds jumped 90% in 2020. But Buck also notes this likely isn’t because of policy decisions at the FCC, or because ISPs did much of anything differently. It’s most likely because when consumers were forced to stay home to work and attend school during COVID lockdown, they were simply willing to pay more money for already available, faster speeds because they realized faster broadband was essential. Buck put it this way:

“… the findings are more likely to suggest increased consumer spending on high-speed plans for working from home than anything else…speed test data is fascinating and helpful, but using it as proof that net neutrality was bad is a giant stretch by any means. When looking at broadband data, I think it’s more important to discuss the dark spots (subscriber data, full capacity testing at scale, same-year fiber build data) than what we have (hundreds of thousands of speed tests, most of them showing results a fraction of what ISPs advertise).”

Yet a number of folks (including commenters at Hacker News) set to work trying to claim that this sudden boost in speed was courtesy of the FCC’s decision to kill net neutrality and effectively self-immolate at telecom lobbyist behest. It’s part of a fairly relentless attempt to proclaim that because killing net neutrality didn’t immediately result in a rainbow-colored explosion, the repeal itself must have somehow been a good thing.

For example, this entire thread from a Federalist contributor takes the study and creates an elaborate alternate reality where critics of the net neutrality repeal must have been wrong, because (you guessed it) the internet didn’t immediately come to a stop:

Yes, many activists and supporters of net neutrality were hyperbolic in trying to explain the very real, very negative impact the net neutrality repeal would have over the longer term. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a terrible idea done in exclusive service to telecom monopolies.

Once again, killing net neutrality didn’t just kill fairly modest net neutrality rules. It left the FCC incapable of holding giant ISPs accountable for fraud, anti-competitive behavior, predatory billing, bogus fees, privacy violations, and all the other symptoms of a broken, uncompetitive, and highly geographically monopolized U.S. telecom market. If you think that’s a good thing (especially during a massive economic and public health crisis that has shown broadband to be an essential lifeline), you either don’t understand how any of this works, or are being intentionally misleading.

Speaking of misleading, the study also appears to have popped up in FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr’s goodbye letter to Ajit Pai (pdf), in which he attributes the speed jump to Pai’s incredible leadership:

“With Internet speeds more than doubling under his leadership, America is now home to the strongest 5G platform in the world.”

That is, if you’re playing along at home, not true. 83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly. Tens of millions more live under a broadband duopoly. Americans pay some of the highest prices in the world for what’s routinely patchy service, mediocre speeds, and terrible customer service. And U.S. 5G speeds also provably and dramatically lag behind most other developed nations as well. There’s a reason for this: it’s called regulatory capture and mindless pandering to powerful telecom monopolies. Resulting in the FCC effectively dismantling itself because Comcast and AT&T told it to.

Again, if you genuinely think having chickenshit regulators commit seppuku because some widely despised telecom monopolists told them to is a good thing, you’re either very confused as to how absolutely any of this works, or you’re being intentionally misleading. Possibly both.

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Comments on “U.S. Broadband Speeds Jumped 90% in 2020. But No, It Had Nothing To Do With Killing Net Neutrality.”

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12 Comments
PaulT (profile) says:

"The US stills lags behind many European and developed nations worldwide, and its major cities also often lag behind their European equivalents."

It still lags behind places where net neutrality is not only not controversial but where local laws means it cannot be an issue since ISPs are prevented from using it unfairly even where it’s in question? Interesting…

"Yes, many activists and supporters of net neutrality were hyperbolic in trying to explain the very real, very negative impact the net neutrality repeal would have over the longer term."

"Longer term" being more than 3 years, of course. It might be a long time on the corporate calendar, but I’m sure more of the negative predictions were being considered in more than the length of the current presidential term.

Anonymous Coward says:

Considering the heap of shit that the UK has for broadband speed and how it gets worse on an almost daily basis, the closer it supposedly gets yo having FTTH, i think its a damn cheek for it to condemn any other country! Yes, US broadband speeds are disastrous! Yes corrupt politicians, by their own selfish, self-serving attitudes basically encourage it to be and stay like it is, but for a country like the UK to condemn it, is out of order. Even when the UK f8bally gets FTTH, it’s gonna be at less than 100mbps and all thanks to Openreach and politicians who are on par with the useless fuckers in the USA! But we all should know, you wont beat corruption, particularly if it means stopping/holding back/preventing the public from having what it should from services that tax money pays for!

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That One Guy (profile) says:

By the same standard a large percentage of americans have access to medical care equal to what Trump got, yachts and millions dollar sports cars, and all the food they can eat since if you can afford it you can have it. Just because it’s technically available doesn’t mean it’s a viable options for someone and it’s grossly dishonest to try to argue otherwise.

Also gotta love the hypocritical standard on display here, as supporters of network neutrality were called alarmists because the internet didn’t instantly explode when it was killed off, but suddenly the fact that network neutrality was killed by Pai’s FCC years back is being held up as an example of what a great move that was and evidence of why it was the right call. You’d think that the US would have seen that spike shortly after the rules were gutted, not only when a ton of people were stuck at home and suddenly found themselves facing data caps and slow speeds with their current connections.

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Pseudo.Register (profile) says:

"Once again, killing net neutrality didn’t just kill fairly modest net neutrality rules. It left the FCC incapable of holding giant ISPs accountable for fraud, anti-competitive behavior, predatory billing, bogus fees, privacy violations, and all the other symptoms of a broken, uncompetitive, and highly geographically monopolized U.S. telecom market."

But did it leave the FTC incapable of holding ISPs accountable for those things?

Maybe the better solution would be to prevent municipalities from awarding monopolies to private companies?

ECA (profile) says:

WELL, what could happen?

That the people find out that there is MORE on the internet then ‘Stuff’?
That cable sucks, and drop it, because they can find the same/more/better on the internet?
That ROKU and others are Fantastic, for free and paid services?
Kids learn that there are TONS of movie locations on the net, and 1/2 are free?
That there are locations to Download the MOVIES they want, and can keep for FREE??

Can I ask 1 question tho. CAPS. ALL the ISP’s have CAPS.

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