Every crisis brings fringe players out of the woodwork, and COVID-19 is no different.
The flat-earthers insist we can open immediately and ignore the certain rebound of the virus. The doomsayers tell us we should be in a bunker for the next two years. The trick for policymakers is to separate the signal from the noise and follow the facts.
The same dynamic is occurring in the public square on broadband policy where some extreme voices are seeking to grab the limelight, push hidden regulatory agendas and maybe grow their Twitter followers.
They do this by claiming that U.S. broadband is “breaking” during COVID-19 (it’s not) and that the Federal Communications Commission is misleading the public with claims about universal broadband availability (the FCC simply stated, accurately, the number of homes without broadband has fallen to historic lows at 5.6 percent).
One of the most outlandish recent claims was made by Sascha Meinrath, who argues that U.S. broadband infrastructure is failing because of COVID-19 traffic surges and “decades of deferred investment.” Neither of these is true.
Meinrath is a longtime overseer of a former Google project known as Measurement Lab (M-Lab) which has been regularly proven wrong in its critiques of internet infrastructure. The reality is that U.S. broadband has withstood a 35 percent spike in demand with virtually no degradation of service whatsoever. It’s passed the COVID-19 stress test perhaps better than any other industry.
What’s more, the extraordinary resilience of American broadband stands in stark contrast to other places like Europe where officials have had to ask companies like Netflix, Disney and Facebook to throttle their speeds because the older, more heavily regulated European networks can’t handle the traffic surges.
It woefully wrong to claim U.S. broadband is degrading under COVID-19.
The gold-standard measure for last-mile networks is the system created by independent research group SamKnows, which reported a dip of less than 1 percent in download speeds in most places since the sheltering skyrocketed broadband demand. Other world-leading measures like Ookla’s speedtest.net confirm that finding.
The problem for Meinrath and his fellow travelers is that M-Labs’ speed tests have historically been debunked as junk science by the internet engineering establishment.
His latest claim is that a novel “international consortium” of researchers finds that 62 percent of U.S. counties have seen broadband speeds fall below 25Mbps (the FCC’s definition of broadband), but he provides little insight as to the membership or the group’s methodology.
The most obvious flaw in the latest claim however is that it almost certainly conflates variables — multiple users on a home network, Wi-Fi slowdowns and content provider logjams on their central servers.
Measuring internet speeds on a single computer when an entire family is online tells us very little about the bandwidth that broadband providers are delivering to homes. This rookie mistake never should have made its way into print.
Previous M-Lab claims about internet slowdowns have also been denounced by the engineering community. For example, the lab measures a solitary TCP (transmission control protocol) connection at a time when most users have anywhere from 30-100 TCP connections open at one time, which is like measuring the throughput of a firehose through a thin cocktail straw.
Even though inaccurate, this kind of tabloid puffery is a fix for cortisol-junkies who thirst for conflict and attention.
Underfunded networks in the United States? In the last two decades, U.S. broadband providers have invested nearly $75 billion a year.
That amounts to $1.5 trillion in the last two decades; even as the European Union desperately tried to catch up, U.S. broadband invested 31 percent more in the past few years than did the Europeans ($387.2 billion compared to 253.1 billion euros between 2014 and 2018). And this U.S. investment and foresight is paying dividends at the very hour America needs it most.
Good news often doesn’t win headlines or build brands for those thirsting for attention.
But accurate news will give us the reliable information we badly need so we can double down on what is working and fix what actually isn’t.