Did Broadband Deregulation Save the Internet?

Something has been bothering me for several months, and that usually manifests in a blog at some point. During the COVID-19 crisis, the FCC and big ISPs have repeatedly said that the only reason our networks weathered the increased traffic during the pandemic was due to the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality and deregulation of the broadband industry. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The big increase in broadband traffic was largely a non-event for big ISPs. Networks only get under real stress during the busiest times of the day. It’s during these busy hours when network performance collapses due to networks being overloaded. There was a big increase in overall Internet traffic during the pandemic, but the busy hour was barely affected. The busy hour for the Internet as a whole is mid-evenings when the greatest number of homes are watching video at the same time. Every carrier that discussed the impact of COVID-19 said that the web traffic during the evening busy-hour didn’t change during the pandemic. What changed was a lot more usage during the daytime as students took school classes from home and employees worked from home. Daytime traffic increased, but it never grew to be greater than the evening traffic. As surprising as that might seem to the average person, ISP networks were never in any danger of crashing – they just got busier than normal during the middle of the day, but not so busy as to threaten any crashes of the Internet. The big ISPs are crowing about weathering the storm when their networks were not in any serious peril.

It’s ironic to see the big ISPs taking a victory lap about their performance during the pandemic because the pandemic shined a light on ISP failures.

  • First, the pandemic reminded America that there are tens of millions of rural homes that don’t have good broadband. For years the ISPs argued that they didn’t invest in rural America because they were unwilling to invest in an overregulated environment. The big ISPs all promised they would increase investment and hire more workers if they were deregulated. That was an obvious lie, since the big ISPs like Comcast and AT&T have cut investments since the net neutrality appeal, and collectively the big ISPs have laid off nearly 100,000 workers since then. The fact is that the big ISPs haven’t invested in rural broadband in decades and even 100% deregulation is not enough incentive for them to do so. The big ISPs wrote off rural America many years ago, so any statements they make to the contrary are purely rhetoric and lobbying.
  • The pandemic also highlighted the stingy and inadequate upload speeds that most big ISPs offer. This is the broadband crisis that arose during the pandemic that the big ISPs aren’t talking about. Many urban homes that thought they had good broadband were surprised when they had trouble moving the office and school to their homes. The problem was not with download speeds, but with the upload speeds needed to connect to school and work servers and to talk all day on video chat platforms – activities that rely on a solid and reliable upload speed. Homes have reacted by migrating to fiber when it is available. The number of households that subscribe to gigabit broadband doubled from December 2019 to the end of March 2020.

The big ISPs and the FCC have also made big political hay during the crisis about the Keep America Connected Pledge where ISPs promised to not disconnect homes for non-payment during the pandemic. I’m pretty sure the ISPs will soon go silent on that topic because soon the other shoe is going to drop as the ISPs expect homes to catch up on those ‘excused’ missed payments if they want to keep their home broadband. It’s likely that millions of homes that ran out of money due to losing their jobs will soon be labeled as deadbeats by the ISPs and will not be let back onto the broadband networks until they pay their outstanding balance, including late fees and other charges.

The shame of the Keep America Connected Pledge was that it had to be voluntary because the FCC destroyed its ability to regulate ISPs in any way. The FCC has no tools left in the regulatory quiver to deal with the pandemic after it killed Title II regulation of broadband.

I find it irksome to watch an industry that completely won the regulatory battle keep acting like it is under siege. The big ISP lobbyists won completely and got the FCC to neuter itself, and yet the big ISPs miss no opportunity to keep making the same false claims they used to win the regulation fight.

It’s fairly obvious that the big ISPs are already positioning themselves to fight off the time when the regulatory pendulum swings the other way. History has shown us that monopoly overreach always leads to a reaction from the public that demands stronger regulation. It’s in the nature of all monopolies to fight against regulation – but you’d think the ISP industry could come up with something new rather than to repeat the same lame arguments they’ve been making for the last decade about how overregulation is killing them.

3 thoughts on “Did Broadband Deregulation Save the Internet?

  1. Well done! You always put into words what our industry participants are feeling. You confirm our fears with regularity. I appreciate your writings and find your blog most important to me. Thank you for what you bring.
    Bobby Vassallo, Dallas

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  2. Parallel trends have seen much faster NRENs, more NRENs globally, cloud computing’s adoption by corporations who previously had private data centers with private fiber connects, HPC has moved to the cloud, Exascale computing and XSEDE type models are being promoted by fedgov. Virtual schooling [both K-20 and WGU models] and startup culture moving to off prem code repositories. Insurers finally forced to pay for telehealth after CMS adopted. People using Netflix type services after cordcutting, competitive esports growth, etc. have all made folks aware that broadband should be #SymmetricLikeElectric

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  3. Thank you, as always, for good, clear reporting of the reality, Doug.

    Last time: I’d encourage people to get on twitter and reply to @fcc and the various directors, plus the chairman (they all use their names+FCC… a lot of the time you wouldn’t know these are work accounts). There’s a nonstop marketing push to reinforce the positive message. I hate to say it but it’s a combination of positive spin plus some direct misstatements.

    The FCC managed to adulterate comments, which are also important, but I feel like twitter needs to keep getting reality reintroduced, since that’s something that the rest of the public might read.

    Here’s a disappointing article from John Hendel in politico that is as much part of the problem: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/07/08/ajit-pai-enemies-5g-351803

    It (a) focuses on the spectrum tussle, which is entirely in the useless 5g category, (b) says almost nothing about regulatory capture of the FCC *by telcoms* and (c) goes on to give credibility to Pai’s potential for a presidential run.

    None of that falls on what I’d consider the right side of what is “news” or good for the country.

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