In recent weeks, the telecom sector and FCC allies have been busy trying to claim that the only reason the US internet still works is because the FCC killed net neutrality rules in 2017. That repeal, you’ll recall, not only killed net neutrality protections, but the FCC’s ability to hold giant telecom monopolies responsible for pretty much anything, be it obvious billing fraud or kicking disabled people offline during a crisis.
The pandemic has been making it very clear that might not have been a great idea. It has also brought renewed attention to the fact that 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband whatsoever despite the US having thrown endless billions at US telecom monopolies. There are millions more who can’t afford service because captured regulators have intentionally turned a blind eye to monopoly domination of the sector and the lack of competition, high prices, and terrible customer service that routinely results.
To try and shift the focus away from, you know, reality… this new bumbling telecom-backed PR campaign has tried to change the subject. Namely, by insisting the only reason the US internet is working at all is because of our mindless, repeated pandering to telecom lobbyists. It’s a missive that keeps popping up around the telecom policy ecosystem, including the AEI, Wall Street Journal, FCC Commissioners, and the FCC General Counsel:
2017: @FCC rejects utility-style regulation of Internet
2019: D.C. Circuit upholds Restoring Internet Freedom Order
— Tom Johnson (@TomMJohnsonJr) April 15, 2020
Like most telecom industry PR efforts, the narrative was then shoveled to various paper op/ed sections via industry allies. Last week, it was USAToday’s turn to run a factually-dubious editorial claiming that the only reason US broadband works during quarantine is because the Trump FCC kissed the ass of telecom giants:
“For most of the past 25 years, the United States has strategically minimized regulatory interference in a sector of the economy that empowers innovators, entrepreneurs and consumers. This light-touch regulatory environment has encouraged private companies to invest tens of billions of dollars in building the internet’s superstructure while opening the doors to innovators and entrepreneurs.”
There’s nothing in this paragraph that’s actually true. And when’s the last time you saw ATT or Comcast do much of anything to “empower innovators or consumers?” That’s not what these companies do, and these editorials always originate from a false premise: that US broadband is some kind of amazing success story, and you just didn’t notice.
For one, the telecom market has never been a “free market.” It’s an increasingly deregulated pile of regional telecom monopolies that all but own state and federal government due to regulatory capture. They don’t try particularly hard to compete on price, upgrade their networks, improve shaky customer service, or expand broadband to rural or less affluent areas because there’s no competition driving such efforts, and most local, state, and federal lawmakers are in their pockets (ensuring the regulatory and cost burdens to upstart competitors remains high).
The end result of this is obvious: the US routinely ranks in the middle of the pack in nearly every broadband metric that matters, while US consumers pay some of the highest prices in the world. There’s an entire chorus of folks employed by the telecom sector to try and pretend this isn’t true.
The article’s headline — “Virus shows internet is too important for government to run” — also ignores the fact that many communities have built some of the most popular and fastest broadband networks on the backs of apathy at market failure. And like several previous op/eds of this ilk, the author tries to claim that the pandemic has crushed European networks (completely false), but not US networks (false) because deregulation has triggered a massive wave in US investment (guess what: false) not seen in Europe:
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“Unlike here, European networks are more heavily regulated. This has led to less investment and worse performance for consumers for years. American consumers are being generally well served by the private sector. Hundreds of service providers have signed up for the FCC’s COVID-19 pledge related to retail practices and prices. Wireless providers are giving out more data and the use of more hotspots for free.”
You mean that entirely voluntary pledge that big ISPs are ignoring because they know the FCC just eliminated its authority to do anything about it? Again, the US internet has held up generally well, but it’s largely thanks to smart engineers and well designed core transit routes used to handling massive events like the Superbowl. Out at the “last mile” of the network, where many Americans are still stuck on 5Mbps DSL lines from 2003, the results have been less impressive. Less impressive still are the sky high prices Americans pay for service, something industry apologists will literally never mention in the hopes of making the fact go away.
Lawmakers, economists, think tankers, and others loyal to companies like ATT and Comcast repeatedly ignore hard data in a bid to strip away consumer protections, claiming this leads to miraculous outcomes that never arrive. It’s an incredible 30 year history of delusion that never results in the projected and promised outcomes. Yet like some purgatorial version of Charlie Brown and Lucy football, we keep repeating the same mistakes and parroting the same delusions, certain that this time, pandering to telecom monopolies will surely drive the fast, cheap networks we were all promised 30 years ago.
This kind of circular, rose-colored glasses policy has long ensured US broadband remains mired in mediocrity. But using a pandemic to prop up and justify this obvious dysfunction is a particularly new and grotesque touch. There’s a reason the telecom industry and its allies are pushing this nonsense, and it’s to try and distract you from the fact that a generation of pandering to telecom monopolies has resulted in patchy, expensive broadband networks at a time when reliable, affordable connectivity is more important than ever.
Memories of you remind me of you.
— Karl Lehenbauer
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