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The weeks of coast-to-coast lockdowns that have forced tens of millions of Americans to hunker down at home have produced one notable bright spot: The internet has withstood the resulting crush of online video-calling, teleworking, distance learning and bingeing.
It’s also inspiring a trans-Atlantic and partisan debate: Why?
To President Donald Trump and other Republicans, the online realm’s success amid the stay-at-home Zoom-and-Netflix boom is a testament to the United States’ light approach to regulating the internet, which has mainly left it to private network providers to figure out how to handle the extra load. That’s in contrast to the more intrusive approach taken by European authorities, who are keeping a close eye on any potential internet congestion — and who even took the precaution of cajoling Netflix to reduce the quality of its video streams to lighten demand.
Republicans also draw a contrast with the strategy espoused by many Democrats, who favor tougher consumer protections and other regulations on internet service and want a much more aggressive federal effort to expand broadband service during the pandemic. So expect to see this month’s real-word test figure into future deregulatory fights in Washington.
“Our free-market based networks remain strong, secure, and the envy of the world,” the White House said in a statement last week, on a day when President Donald Trump dialed the leaders of internet service providers like T-Mobile and Charter Communications to thank them.
“If you look at Europe, they went a different route than we did, much different route,” Trump told reporters at a briefing a few hours later. “We were talking about that just a little while ago, and they’re having tremendous problems.”
Former Trump administration telecommunications regulator David Redl sounded a similar theme in an interview with POLITICO last week.
“I think the proof is in the pudding when you look at how [European] networks have held up under increased load, under the strain of everybody being home, versus our networks,” said Redl, a former head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration who now consults for Comcast and Facebook. “Frankly, as you saw in Europe, European regulators had to go to the streaming platforms and ask them to downgrade to standard def.”
In fact, though, the internet is still functioning in Europe as well, aside from some of the same kinds of slowdowns, interruptions and scattered outages that specific U.S.-based apps or services have also experienced in the past month.
And U.S. regulators haven’t been shy about intervening to try to keep the series of tubes at capacity — even without much in the way of legal authority to enforce their will.
Ajit Pai, chief of the Federal Communications Commission, has emerged as the most public figure in that effort, securing pledges from hundreds of internet providers to open Wi-Fi hotspots to Americans in need, waive any late fees for residential and small business customers and keep serving customers unable to pay bills during the pandemic. He has also made a series of regulatory tweaks to make the task easier for companies, from waiving deadlines to helping low-income consumers keep their telecommunications subsidies to allowing wireless carriers to boost their network capacity by tapping into new airwaves.
On the other hand, Pai has rejected calls from Democratic colleagues for the FCC to collect and disseminate regular reports on network demand and capacity. Instead, he has encouraged industry reporting mechanisms such as a dashboard of network performance metrics created by the cable industry.
Democrats, though, are calling for a massive ramp-up in the FCC’s role. That includes a plea for the commission to spend billions of subsidy dollars — potentially coming from future congressional appropriations or a refashioning of existing FCC subsidy funds — to help ensure broadband connections for students stuck at home and for low-income households who may not be able to afford ISPs' offerings, even as Republicans question whether these ideas stretch the agency’s statutory limits.
“The FCC should rise to this moment and use all of our existing authority to act without hesitation,” Jessica Rosenworcel, the agency’s senior Democrat, said. “We can help the newly unemployed. We can connect students so no child is left offline. We can create pathways for telehealth.
“And we should always be willing to learn from abroad,” she added. “Because this pandemic does not discriminate and understanding globally how networks fared and technology was used is worth the effort.”
Many Democrats have also advocated a return of Obama-era net neutrality regulations, which were aimed at prohibiting internet providers from favoring some online services over others and were rooted in broader legal authority that advocates say the FCC needs. Republicans counter that heavier regulations would leave companies less financially able to step up and help as they are doing now.
One thing is for certain: Internet traffic is up a ton since Covid-19 started forcing cities, states and entire nations into lockdown.
In the U.S., top internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have reported overall traffic spiking by 25 percent or more as American households retreat from public settings and reshuffle the day-to-day with happy hours and yoga classes by Zoom video conference and remote work by Slack messaging. ISPs are reporting shifting internet usage patterns, as downtown business cores see drops and suburban household see spikes during the day while people telework.
The looming surge inspired some initial trepidation about whether the internet could handle the load, as well as some anecdotes about consumers’ woes with their balky home routers or limited broadband accounts.
But the nightmare of widespread internet outages shutting down an already devastated economy has not come to pass.
That’s partly due to the basic design of the internet, which originated a half-century ago as a Pentagon-backed effort to devise a communications network robust enough to bypass massive obstacles — including, famously, nuclear war. But keeping the global network humming these days also depends upon the decision of a host of for-profit and noncommercial entities.
Many of these companies credit proactive investment decisions that now help keep Americans connected. AT&T, for instance, is quick to cite its investment in tools that allow it to dynamically adjust traffic patterns and use artificial intelligence to adjust the use of cell sites.
Since the late 1990s, key differences have emerged in the American and European approaches to internet oversight. The U.S. favored so-called infrastructure-based competition, pitting similar communications providers against one another and requiring new market players to build their own networks. Europe instead focused on service-based competition, in which new internet providers are allowed to use the same data pipelines that more-established competitors have already created. These differences influenced companies’ willingness to invest, Republicans have argued, and thus affected how prepared industry was for today’s pandemic.
“I know the U.S. networks appear to be doing really, really well,” said Scott Mair, AT&T’s president of technology and operations. “I chalk that up to a couple of things. It’s a good environment for companies like AT&T to invest in."
Redl, the former Trump administration official, said that’s something to keep in mind during the next regulation fight.
“If there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this in terms of broadband networks, it’s that we should be not trying to regulate harder but taking a page out of the playbook here and say, 'OK, how do we continue to incentive these guys to build out?'” Redl said. “How do we align the incentives to continue having facilities-based competition through private sector investment?”
But Democrats, including Obama-era FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in a recent essay, say the pandemic still points the need for more federal action to secure and expand the blessings of internet service. Those include a more aggressive effort to expand broadband service to tens of millions of underserved Americans — a goal many Republicans have also embraced, especially in rural communities.
"I guess one can observe that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste if it gives advocates a new opportunity to flog long-established positions, regardless of their validity," Wheeler told POLITICO regarding Republicans' recent victory lap, saying many U.S. internet successes date to policies enacted under the previous Democratic administration and before. He also noted that many European consumers seem to pay much less for higher internet speeds than Americans do.
A more starkly partisan U.S. fight concerns whether to classify broadband as a "common carrier" telecommunications service, akin to an old-fashioned telephone network, which comes with heavier regulatory powers. FCC Republicans gave up a lot of the commission’s direct authority over broadband in 2017 when they repealed the Obama-era net neutrality regulations. That ended broadband's regulation as a common carrier.
Now, left-leaning advocacy groups say, the FCC's regulators have only limited power to crack down on ISPs or ensure they abide by potential commission demands, such as lifting data caps or compelling connectivity, if the internet were to begin to sputter.
“Their options are severely limited,” Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld warned during a webinar last month. “There’s just somewhat limited authority to do what needs to be done.”
And it's not certain how much the Federal Trade Commission would help, even though it assumed much authority over policing broadband following the FCC’s net neutrality repeal. The FTC, which tends to focus on enforcement, has mainly dealt with issues like fighting coronavirus scams but has taken a backseat to the FCC on overseeing the internet connections themselves.
Michael Copps, a former Democratic FCC commissioner, has said the voluntary ISP commitments Pai secured are not enforceable given diminished FCC authority. Gigi Sohn, a former Wheeler adviser at the commission, also lamented in an op-ed that the FCC is now "powerless" over broadband — which means Pai was "forced to beg" for the providers' good behavior.
Even if the internet is functioning fine for now, U.S. policy could still whipsaw in a more regulatory direction after November if Democrats take the White House. But GOP lawmakers are glad to join the victory lap for now.
“America, you’re seeing with our lighter touch regulation, is very much better during this enormous usage of the internet than our European counterparts that have a much heftier government interference in their networks,” House Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) told reporters on a recent call.