Two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission repealed “network neutrality.” Many forecast disaster as a result, predicting the rise of miserly internet providers and throttled access. But the pandemic has decisively proved these predictions wrong. The internet has performed admirably despite unprecedented demand — a testament to the wisdom of the United States’ light regulatory approach.
The pandemic has been a nearly ideal test for the doomsday predictions. When net neutrality was repealed, for example, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer tweeted, “Without #NetNeutrality when a couple is streaming their favorite #Netflix show but it keeps lagging and killing the mood, who will be to blame?”
Since late March, the demand for broadband has been enormous, with traffic across cable and telecom networks up anywhere from 19% to 35%. In contrast to the dire forecasts, however, the digital infrastructure has performed very well.
Tech innovation is helping us cope now
The nation’s businesses have relied on modern video communications as a management and delivery platform, while these same services have become a fixture in social lives. Further, broadband expansion and innovation over the past decade have given rise to the tools we are finding so essential right now.
As my colleague Jennifer Huddleston noted, if this pandemic had hit 10 years ago, the capability to work remotely, maintain social distance and take classes from home would have been far more technologically difficult — if not impossible. According to Pew Research Center, it was only 12 years ago that a majority of Americans had a broadband connection of some sort at home. And many of the services we are using now, such as Instacart and DoorDash, have only been around for a handful of years.
What’s more, far from throttling access and exploiting the high demand, broadband companies themselves are at the forefront of the business sector’s efforts to inform and to help people cope with this crisis. Google, for instance, launched a coronavirus information website with state-based information and safety tips and precautions. AT&T is offering schools 60 days of unlimited data, keeping public Wi-Fi hot spots open, increasing data limits and waiving fees for customers facing hardship. FirstNet is supporting a very robust emergency response. Xfinity (Comcast), Verizon and others are taking similar steps to keep people and businesses connected at times of very high usage.
It's simple: We don’t need to subsidize internet service
The range of online tools and the strength of the underlying infrastructure is not simply a stroke of good fortune for the United States. It is a direct result of a pattern of policy choices regarding broadband infrastructure and new technologies.
Taking a hands-off approach
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.
The result, according to Huddleston, is a “robust innovation ecosystem (that) has benefited American consumers by providing both a wide variety of choices and, in particular, free and low-cost options for services that are available now in a time of crisis.”
We need broadband: In a pandemic, the digital divide separates too many Americans from relief
This pandemic has shown the tremendous value of the internet, and there have been calls for the government to provide more broadband as a result. But policymakers at all levels of government should steel themselves against calls to step in and dictate regulatory requirements that limit technology choices and business models. Our distinct advantage in this crisis has not just been our tech sector; it has also been a technology policy that has allowed that sector to grow.
An important and simple lesson is before us: Federal policies that unleash innovative and competitive forces, penalize anti-competitive conduct, and let consumers vote with their dollars and their feet are the recipe for success in building digital infrastructure. Heavy-handed government regulations are not.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, is a former director of the Congressional Budget Office. Follow him on Twitter: @djheakin
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus demand vindicates US technology and broadband policies