By Karl Bode
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:
Three years ago, America was locked in a battle for #NetNeutrality, and, by extension, life as we knew it.
For the lucky few who survived, I invite you to join me on a quick stroll down memory lane to revisit the doom and gloom we were promised. https://t.co/wdQC8GRktj
— Drew Holden (@DrewHolden360) November 25, 2020
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.