Introducing ITIF’s Broadband Myth Series

Doug Brake Alexandra Bruer November 16, 2020
November 16, 2020

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When it comes to policymaking, ideological differences are no surprise. Issues like abortion, taxes, health care, and many others are often characterized by deeply held ideological views that make it difficult to achieve policy consensus. But some areas of policy, such as national defense, have historically been less ideologically tinged, which has allowed for more rational analysis and fact-based decision making.

For many years, the United States was fortunate that telecommunications policy fell into that category. For example, the U.S. Senate passed the Telecom Act of 1996 by a vote of 91 to 5. Conservatives might have preferred a lighter touch for government and liberals would have been happier with a bit stronger touch, but they both agreed the private sector should provide broadband service to consumers. Moreover, they agreed it should be lightly regulated, with government playing an enabling role to support rollout in rural areas and to help close the digital divide.

But over the last 15 years, ideology has started seeping its way into broadband policy. Many “broadband populists” on the left now see the Internet as “too important” a technology to leave to market forces in the private sector. Policy arguments thus are no longer about what makes sense within the prevailing broadband market framework. Now arguments are existential: keep the current market-based system or overthrow it to establish a regulated utility model or government-provider model.

To achieve their vision, advocates of broadband “revolution” must do everything they can to impugn the current system, which is working well, to make it look like it is really failing. This is the context for most of the claims, arguments, and attacks populists have been leveling against the U.S. broadband system. Ideological priorities take precedence over empirical evidence, and the need to discredit the current system leads to persistent amplification of falsehoods about how it has been performing while playing up the alleged risks involved in a light-touch approach and diminishing the role of competition in broadband policy. Many claims supporting the strongest possible net neutrality rules, for example, simply are not true. Yet they are often asserted with no evidence at all or maybe a brief reference to single study that has been broadly criticized.

Broadband populists pushing either a utility model or government-provider model for providing broadband consistently campaign to reinforce these myths. In seeking a more utility-style approach to providing connectivity, advocates and activists routinely claim that U.S. broadband is expensive, slow, and lacking in competition. Despite rapid and continual increases in network speed, they argue that only universal fiber broadband is adequate. Because, they argue, neither market forces nor consumer demand is leading to an all-fiber network in the short run, a comprehensive overhaul of competition and regulatory policy is needed.

But it’s important to get the causality straight. Broadband populists start by rejecting the current private-sector model and then pile on arguments—myths, actually—to discredit that model and bolster their case. Let the facts be damned. Unfortunately, after years of such campaigning, most of these myths are now deeply rooted in the public debate, particularly with the online “netroots” community, but also among policymakers and in the media.

In reality, U.S. broadband service consistently hovers around the global top 10 in terms of speed—remarkable considering the higher cost structure providers face to serve America’s suburbanized, single-family homes. Moreover, industries with high fixed costs—like broadband—can be extremely competitive with a relatively low number of competitors. The truth is that U.S. broadband is relatively affordable, and providers’ profits are not abnormally high compared to other countries where the costs of providing service are often lower.

In the esteemed behavioral law and economics paper “Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation,” scholars Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein describe how self-reinforcing processes of collective belief formation, which they call “availability cascades,” allow particular policy stances to gain increasing prominence in public discourse, feeding on themselves until “the  perceived collective wisdom may  bear little, if any, relation  to reality.” The authors identify “availability entrepreneurs” who exaggerate risks, amplify isolated problems, and continuously repeat dubious claims in an effort to advance their cause and “make anyone who questions their objectives appear ignorant, duped, or depraved.”

This is an excellent description of broadband populists’ policy discourse, except that one could add “dishonest” to the list of inadequacies of those who have the temerity to not have gone over the availability cascade cliff. Broadband populists regularly try to discredit their intellectual opponents by claiming that they are “sock puppets” of “big broadband.” With that, no need to actually engage in reasoned debate based on facts, logic, or argumentation. 

Network neutrality is a prime example. In late 2017, as the debate reached a crescendo around the Federal Communications Commission’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” order to repeal net neutrality rules, there was widespread (and unjustified) panic, which ginned up millions of unique comments. A bomb threat was even called in, and a populist group went so far as to distribute door-knob leaflets in the form of a wanted poster to attack FCC Chairman Agit Pai in his neighborhood. Yet widespread fears of website blocking and speed throttling never materialized (as any dispassionate observer could have predicted), and no serious problems have come to pass as a result of that order.

This isn’t to say there are no problems worth addressing in broadband policy: Net neutrality deserves legislation to provide effective protections and long-term stability in the regulatory framework. There is still a long way to go to ensure broadband is affordable for every American, regardless of income. Rural broadband calls out for government infrastructure investment. All schoolchildren need access and devices (especially during a pandemic), and essential work remains to be done to help critical services be more effective in a digital age. These problems require a lot of effort, analysis, and constructive dialogue, but they are all challenges that can effectively be addressed without turning broadband into a regulated utility or a socialized, government-provided service.

To that end, ITIF has set out to correct the record and expose how flimsy the evidence is for many broadband myths. In a series of short policy briefs, we will address various myths in turn, identifying where analysis is skewed and uncovering more accurate evidence. We will compile these briefs into a package at itif.org/broadband-myths, which we will update with links and brief summaries of various myths as each new brief is released.