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Coronavirus crisis proves 'net neutrality' was a mistake, repeal was right move: Grover Norquist

Grover Norquist

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Deregulation has been the most effective tool in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. As of this writing at least 350 regulations at the national and state level have been waived to help fight COVID-19.

Regulations can make things worse. A well-named regulation can do great damage. Regulations sometimes do the opposite of what was promised or hoped for.

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The recent Trump deregulatory actions continue the progress made by Trump appointees since 2017.

We saw this when the Federal Communications Commission had the regulatory humility to repeal one of the most onerous regulations of all - Title II public utility-style regulation of the internet.  This regulation was called “net neutrality” which sounds good. But it gave federal, state and local governments excessive powers to meddle with the internet’s infrastructure.

For the two years the Obama-era “net neutrality” was in place, the regulations reduced investment in the internet infrastructure. Costs did not fall. There was no improvement in quality. But some self-appointed activists claimed that repealing the “net neutrality” regulations would bring about the end of the internet as we know it and even the end of democracy.

Despite the gnashing of teeth on the left, the internet—without “net neutrality” regulations -- is thriving even as COVID-19 causes a huge uptick in internet traffic and more than 700 companies have pledged to keep Americans connected through the crisis. More people are connected, as companies offer free access and reduced rates, while networks deftly handle increased traffic from work-at-home, school-at-home, health-at-home, and entertain-at-home.

The networks have been able to handle, in some instances, a 70 percent surge in at-home internet traffic. Wireline broadband providers report that total traffic increased by a range of 17.3 to 37.4 percent, with an average increase of 25.5 percent.

Over the major wireless carriers, mobile voice traffic during COVID has increased between 7 and 24.3 percent compared to average usage pre the crisis, while mobile data traffic usage has increased between 0.7 and 9.2 percent compared to average data traffic over mobile networks. For example, AT&T reported wireless voice up 28 percent and Wi-Fi calling minutes are up 84 percent from the pre-crisis average usage baselines.

All of this is largely possible because of the 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom vote where the FCC reclassified internet service providers as a Title I information service, not a Title II public utility. In 2015, the Obama FCC majority called a law designed to regulate public monopolies like taxi medallions and power plants “net neutrality” and tried to end the open internet consensus harkening back to the 1990s.

The Title II “net neutrality” regulations were an outlier in the history of U.S. Internet policy. Before Obama administration imposition of Title II regulations in 2015, the internet was mostly free from government regulation.

For nearly 20 years, the U.S. employed a light-touch regulatory framework and where providers build their own networks over which they provide services, known as facilities-based competition. As a result, broadband investment maintained an upward trajectory in the U.S. – except for its downward blip under the 2015 public-utility style net neutrality rules.

While the public utility-style net neutrality rules were in effect from 2015-2017, annual capital investments from internet service providers declined for the first time since 2008/2009. After the repeal, broadband providers immediately increased investment with approximately $80 billion pouring into the networks in 2018 alone.

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Meanwhile, Europe continues to impose public utility-style “net neutrality” regulations and its infrastructure investments continue to lag. The European Telecommunications Network Operators reported its members invested significantly less per capita in 2018, EUR89 (~104USD), compared to US companies investing EUR213.3 (~249USD) per capita, and said it would be a long road ahead to reach parity with the likes of the U.S. and Japan.

The European Commission actually had to require Netflix and YouTube to degrade quality. That is what over-regulation looks like.

The COVID-19 crisis calls the bluff of so-called net neutrality advocates who claimed the internet would load a single word at a time, in order to continue their vast fund-raising efforts to “save the internet.”

Life during and after COVID-19 will rely even more on internet connectivity. Telework and telehealth will be a larger part of new norms. American ISPs are at the forefront of keeping America connected and our technology companies are at the forefront of getting us back to work.

What we have learned in this crisis is that it imposing “net neutrality” was a politically driven mistake and repealing it was vital for consumers, the internet, and the flexibility of the American economy.

Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform. Follow him on Twitter @GroverNorquist.

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