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Lessons From the Pandemic: Broadband Policy After COVID-19

By Doug Brake
July 13, 2020

U.S. broadband networks weathered the COVID-19 surge in traffic better than most peer nations. The pandemic should galvanize policymakers to ensure broadband can serve as an essential lifeline for everyone, including low-income and rural residents.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Since the onset of COVID-19, home broadband traffic is up by roughly 20 to 40 percent. Thankfully, U.S. broadband networks accommodated this higher demand, in part because U.S. network speeds were already faster than many peer nations.
We should not change what works. Reliance on facility-based competition and light-touch regulation set the stage for the consistent, above-average private investment that sustained U.S. broadband networks through this crisis.
That current networks so well accommodated the jump in both download and upload traffic indicates there is no need to over-invest public resources to subsidize ultra-fast networks where broadband infrastructure already exists.
COVID-19 has exposed shortcomings that competitive networks do not adequately address. This should galvanize policymakers to address serious gaps in rural infrastructure, affordability for low-income users, and at-home access for students.

Overview

The Good News: U.S. Broadband Networks Are Performing Well

The Bad News: Challenges Around Access, Adoption, and Use Remain

Conclusion

Endnotes

Overview

The historic COVID-19 pandemic offers a unique opportunity for policymakers to examine the successes and failures of the nation’s broadband system. The stay-at-home orders, business closures, and social distancing necessary to fight coronavirus transmission generated a considerable increase in broadband traffic and a dramatic shift in usage patterns. The jump in demand has seen peak traffic roughly 20 to 30 percent higher than before the pandemic.

Thankfully, the increase in broadband traffic was within the anticipated growth in demand operators could already accommodate. As such, U.S. broadband networks were able to accommodate these changes with virtually no drop in performance. The facilities-based competition model the United States relies on to incent providers to invest in infrastructure passed the COVID-19 network stress test, performing better than Internet infrastructure in many other countries. The dynamic broadband competition in the United States has driven billions of dollars into network capacity that met the surge in demand. The light-touch regulatory approach also allowed for network operators to flexibly adjust interconnection levels to meet new changes in demand.

The facilities-based competition model the United States relies on to incent providers to invest in infrastructure passed the COVID-19 network stress test, performing better than Internet infrastructure in many other countries.

Nonetheless, the COVID-19 pandemic also amplified some glaring failures with U.S. broadband policy. A persistent digital divide continues to mean not everyone is connected, whether it be due to a lack of infrastructure in rural, uneconomic areas, or a variety of adoption hurdles throughout the country. This evidence from the pandemic should galvanize policymakers and civil society to shift the conversation toward productive gap filling, rather than continuing the tired old debates around issues such as net neutrality and municipal broadband. 

The Good News: U.S. Broadband Networks Are Performing Well

Thankfully, U.S. broadband networks have performed well through the COVID crisis. Contrary to some ill-founded claims that the Internet was “breaking,” broadband infrastructure held up remarkably well considering the broad changes in traffic patterns. Existing end-user speeds handled applications well, and network operators were able to scale up interconnection where needed.

Network Performance

It is not a given that networks perform well in times of social or economic crisis. Take the Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919 for example, when many telephone operators were stricken. To manage, the Bell Telephone company (the nation’s predominant telephone provider at the time) ran ads encouraging people not to use the telephone, akin to what some politicians in other nations said to their citizens during COVID: Use the Internet less.

Figure 1: Bell Telephone Company advertisement from 1918[1]