So we’ve noted a few times now how the FCC’s decision to kill net neutrality did a hell of a lot more than just kill “net neutrality.” It obliterated much of the FCC’s consumer protection authority, making it harder than ever to hold U.S. telecom monopolies accountable for bad behavior like rampant privacy violations, ripping you off with bullshit fees, or refusing to upgrade or repair long-neglected taxpayer subsidized networks. And this was a problem even before America began staring down the barrel of a brutal pandemic while stuck at home telecommuting.
Enter American Enterprise Institute’s Roslyn Layton, who apparently thought that using COVID-19 as a prop to celebrate the death of U.S. telecom consumer protections was somehow a good idea. In a brutally tone-deaf blog post this week, Layton insisted that the FCC’s decision to ignore a bipartisan majority of the public and kiss the ass of U.S. telecom giants was proving to be really helpful during a terrifying crisis:
“Traffic is up 75 percent or more on many US networks, but they are still performing. Hundreds of communications providers have signed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge, a commitment that broadband and telephone services run for the next 60 days without late fees or termination due to unpaid bills. We should thank our lucky stars that Title II net neutrality regulations were repealed by the FCC in 2017.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.”
I’ve seen a lot of K Street policy nonsense in covering the telecom sector for close to two decades, but Layton’s latest missive is one of the biggest piles of tone deaf horse shit I’ve ever seen shoveled into prose.
For one thing, Pai’s “keep American’s connected pledge” is entirely voluntary, and only basically states that ISPs can’t kick you offline for non-payment during the next 60 days. But because the FCC neutered its authority to tell telecom giants what to do, the agency couldn’t actually hold ISPs accountable should they refuse to adhere to the request or engage in bad behavior during a crisis. It’s pinky swears and regulatory policy theater disguised as meaningful action. It’s designed entirely to cover up the fact that the FCC just got done neutering itself at lobbyist behest, and the authority it shed would come in useful now.
The second claim Layton makes — that repealing net neutrality helped prevent U.S networks from collapsing under the load of quarantine traffic — is just indisputably false.
U.S. telecom giants like Comcast and AT&T actually dropped their overall network investment for 2020 in the wake of the Title II repeal and the massive Trump tax cuts, contrary to FCC and industry claims. And European and Chinese networks, while certainly feeling a pinch, have generally held up well under the strain. U.S. networks are also holding up well so far, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the FCC ignoring the public and kissing Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast’s ass. Even FCC advisors to Pai have indicated that the strain we’re seeing so far pales in comparison to events like the Superbowl:
U.S. ISPs don’t need streaming video services to cut their resolution as they have in the EU, FCC advisor @EvanS_FCC says on @RogerEntner’s con call. He adds that some broadband providers have joked that COVID-19 doesn’t even compare to the Super Bowl in terms of network stress.
— Rob Pegoraro (@robpegoraro) March 24, 2020
While the internet core is holding up well, the problems most Americans will see are largely on the “last mile”: aka slow end-user broadband connections (particularly upstream). In many areas, that’s mostly courtesy of U.S. phone companies that see so little competition or regulatory pressure they’ve simply stopped upgrading or repairing aging DSL lines. And that, again, is made worse by gutting the FCC’s ability to hold the telecom industry accountable, not better. Claiming otherwise is denialist fantasy.
To “prove” her inaccurate point, Layton points to Netflix’s decision to throttle its overall bandwidth usage by around 25% to help ease the overall strain on European networks:
“European policymakers are now eating crow and entreating video platforms to downgrade the quality of their streams, an about face from the regulatory dogma that “all data is equal” and that regulations are needed to keep internet service providers (ISPs) from harming their own networks.”
But neither Netflix nor European regulators cited any evidence of actual network strain, and the move was entirely precautionary. It had absolutely nothing to do with net neutrality or the U.S. FCC’s net neutrality repeal, and using a pandemic to applaud the death of U.S. consumer protections is both grotesque and bizarre.
So what is Layton actually up to here? Why push this tone-deaf missive now?
Giant U.S. telecom providers aren’t keen on the fact that the pandemic is shining a very bright light on the fact that an estimated 42 million home bound Americans still lack access to any kind of broadband whatsoever in 2020. They’re also eager to distract from the fact that millions of Americans can’t afford broadband courtesy of monopoly domination, a lack of competition, corruption, and regulatory capture. And they’re most certainly eager to distract you from the fact that we threw tens of billions in regulatory favors and tax cuts at giants like AT&T in exchange for layoffs and empty promises.