Award Winning Blog

Monday, August 16, 2021

Tracking Inconsistent Zigs and Zags in Telecom Policy Research

Sponsored researchers surely embrace Oscar Wilde’s view that “consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”  Why bother building a multi-year record of empirical evidence when there are ample publishers and even appellate court judges (and their law clerks) waiting for intellectual support no matter how suspect.

Just now, I am seeing how both wireless and wireline carriers have unleashed a torrent of inconsistent advocacy research.  On one hand, the conventional wisdom dished from this group and their sponsored researchers was the “fact” that network neutrality and other regulations directly and negatively impact investments made in infrastructure.  Former FCC Chairman Amit Pai made a point to repeat this assertion early and often and it became gospel truth, so much so that cherry-picked and quite questionable “research” became the foundation for the appellate court affirmance of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order.

Now, circumstances and motivations have changed with the Covid pandemic offering a true test whether carriers have made sufficient plant investment, both under the disincentivizing network neutrality regime and free of it.  No one has convinced me that a single regulatory or degregulatory initiative substantially impacts carrier investment decisions one way or the other, particularly because of far more impactful factors such as interest rates and the normal ebb and flow of technological development cycles.  

Carriers did not close their wallets when network neutrality rules were in force.  That is corroborated by ample current evidence—now touted by the carriers-- that during the pandemic, U.S. carriers were able to meet rising demand for bandwidth.  If the carriers had scrimped on investment, because of the horrendous burdens imposed by network neutrality, how could their networks show such resiliency and ability to accommodate significant increases in subscribership and bandwidth requirements? It shows me that the need to stay competitive and to install new technology, such as 5G, trumped any incentive to forestall investment to make a regulatory and public policy statement.

Additionally, carriers cannot credibly oppose municipal broadband networks and expanded universal service subsidies if they persist in spreading the gospel that network neutrality forced underinvestment.

We no longer hear that consumers do not want, and will not pay for something better than 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3 megabits per second upload speeds.  We no longer hear that carrier networks are woefully underfunded and unable to satisfy consumer requirements. Such assertions now would support the case for market failure and the need for taxpayer funded networks, because the carriers have no interest in building.  Of course, now that Covid has unleashed a torrent of new universal service money, who can dispute the premise that incumbent carriers want to tap the gravy train.

By the way, the new FCC has yet to reinstitute network neutrality, but I am not seeing any new evidence of substantial increases in network investment by carriers still freed from the unconscionable burdens previously imposed.

Who needs consistency?