The Internet is Not Working for Everyone

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Weekly Digest

The Internet is Not Working for Everyone

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday (or, sure, maybe on the occasional Tuesday).

Round-Up for the Week of May 18-22, 2020

Kevin Taglang

We're all obviously aware of the unprecedented National Emergency President Donald Trump declared on March 13, 2020 and the shelter-at-home orders many have lived under in the last few months. Telework, telehealth, and distance education have all boomed during this time, testing residential broadband networks like never before.

Back in the early weeks of the crisis, assessments based on data from broadband providers themselves and third-party internet traffic monitors led one policymaker to declare that surges in Internet traffic are well within the capacity of U.S. networks and "America’s Internet infrastructure continues to perform well."

Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, however, called on the FCC to do a better job of tracking network outages to find and fill gaps in service. Benton Senior Fellow, Jonathan Sallet, a former FCC general counsel, asked for the FCC to issue a weekly broadband status report, updating America on what is working about our broadband networks and what, if anything, is not.

During times of crisis, the FCC, in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), routinely activates the Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS), a voluntary, web-based system that communications providers, including wireless, wireline, broadcast, cable, and Voice over Internet Protocol providers, can use to report communications infrastructure status and situational awareness information. Although voluntary, the FCC requests that communications providers expeditiously submit and update information through DIRS regarding the status of their communications equipment and restoration efforts. 

Absent DIRS-like reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic, we've not seen a comprehensive review of how home internet connections are faring during the coronavirus crisis. Recent news, however, is troubling.

Problems With The Pledge

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai spoke with the House Commerce Committee on May 19 and reported that the agency has received around 2,200 complaints related to the pandemic over the last few weeks. Of those 2,200 complaints filed, 1,400 have received a response from a service, Pai said. Around 500 of those total complaints were filed specifically about the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge, the agency’s primary response to the pandemic. An early analysis of some 450 complaints suggested that broadband providers were not consistently honoring the voluntary pledge to make internet access more attainable while many Americans are struggling to pay their bills. Roughly 40% of the complaints pertained to service disruptions, disconnections, and other ISP-related barriers to internet access.“The other COVID-19 complaints involve questions about billing or network issues or broadband access generally,” Pai said.

On May 20, the New York Times reported that although broadband providers have introduced offers of free and low-cost internet with great fanfare, people signing up for the programs have encountered unexpected difficulties and roadblocks. These consumers' stories highlight the way that the pandemic has stretched the gap between Americans who have easy access to the internet and those who do not, cutting the latter group off from venues for learning, work, and play.

The benefits and rules of the broadband offers vary widely, so a customer may not qualify for free service while someone in identical circumstances elsewhere in the country can sign up. Sometimes, people must endure hours-long waits on the phone to sign up, which can lead some to give up before they ever talk to a customer service agent. Others have been deterred by language barriers or are wary of requests for identification. Customers are often left scrambling to figure out what offers are available to them.

Several large broadband companies -- including Comcast, Charter, and Altice, which operates Suddenlink and Optimum -- initially said a household could not sign up if it had an unpaid bill for earlier service. They pulled back that requirement when reporters and politicians questioned it.

The FCC forwards complaints made to the agency to the respective carriers. When a carrier receives the complaint, it has 30 days to respond to the filing consumer. “It’s my understanding that most of the complaints that we have received about the pledge have been resolved to ensure that the consumer remains connected,” Chairman Pai said.

Pai said he has been personally working with the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau to "make sure that providers are following through with the commitments that they made" -- the pledge is voluntary, so not something the FCC's Enforcement Bureau can enforce. But the chairman also said he would use every tool in the toolbox, if necessary, to enforce it, which could include referring anyone who did not keep their pledge to the Federal Trade Commission, with which the FCC has a memorandum of understanding.

Back in March, Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate Gigi Sohn warned about relying on a voluntary pledge when so much was needed to keep Americans connected -- and connect millions more who lacked broadband access before COVID-19 struck. Sohn noted that the root of the problem is the FCC's 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom order in which the "Trump FCC blithely threw away its legal power to oversee the activities of these companies by reclassifying them as unregulated 'information services' rather than regulated 'telecommunications services.'" Sohn says:

Without legal authority over broadband providers, the agency cannot hold any of those companies to their promises — they can simply walk away after 60 days or before. Nor can the FCC require broadband providers to take critical steps beyond the pledge, like relaxing data caps, providing low-cost or free connectivity, or other steps that would help those desperately in need during this crisis, if even on a temporary basis. The Communications Act of 1934 gives the FCC a great deal of flexibility to ensure that the public is protected during a national emergency. But when it comes to broadband internet access, this FCC is powerless.

Degraded Service

Earlier this month, Penn State University Professor Sascha Meinrath shared findings from hundreds of thousands of speed tests that illustrate that something is going terribly wrong with residential connectivity across the United States. During the last half of February 2020, his research showed that 1,708 counties (52.8 percent) in the U.S. had median download speeds that did not meet the FCC’s minimum criteria to qualify as “broadband” connectivity. But, by the last two weeks of March 2020, the number of counties that did not meet the FCC’s minimum criteria for broadband speed had increased to 2,012 (62.2 percent).

A dozen states saw modest speed increases between February and March. But a whopping 38 states saw slower speeds — and five states (Connecticut, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa) had median download speeds that were over 20 percent slower than the prior month.

On the whole, the average median download speed degradation across the 50 states and the District of Columbia was -7.6 percent.

Cloud-platform provider Fastly also took a close look at home broadband performance during the pandemic. Network experts there compared download speeds against five median income brackets. While digging into the data, Fastly expected to see a noticeable difference in internet access and performance for low-income households. But what surprised the analysts was how clearly and consistently the stratification aligns with income groups. Median download speeds track in decreasing succession from the highest income group to the lowest. The difference in performance between the highest and lowest income groups is pronounced: at their lowest during this two-month period, download speeds for those making less than $30,000 annually were 41.4% lower than for those making $200,000 or more.

According to Fastly data, on April 21, 22.3% of the connections in the lowest income bracket didn’t meet that the FCC's 25/3 benchmark, making working and learning from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic difficult, if not impossible.

What's Needed Now

The first step is admitting you have a problem. Broadband is the medium that puts "distance" in social distancing. Its importance for people getting through and recovering from the pandemic now appears to be unquestioned. But the current emergency is also highlighting broadband's inequitable distribution. 

Writing in The Hill recently, Vinton Cerf and David Isenberg said the lessons of the times are that:

  1. Internet access should be made ubiquitous, affordable, symmetric, and reliable.
  2. Local networks (residential and offices) should be upgraded with new equipment.
  3. Policies that facilitate the first two objectives should be pursued.

In his article, Meinrath concluded:

In the immediacy, our challenge is to address two core issues: Accurately documenting the true state of connectivity in the U.S. and funding and executing a plan that will ensure equitable access to this critical resource. We need independent due diligence and documentation of broadband reality and a far-reaching universal service mandate that will meaningfully ameliorate existing digital divides.

If we all agree that our broadband networks are facing an unprecedented test, we miss a great opportunity if we don't take the time to grade their performance. Let's understand where broadband is living up to its potential and where it is not.

Quick Bits

Longer Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

May 27 Getting to the Source of the 2020 Infodemic: It’s the Business Model (New America)

May 27 Workers and COVID-19 (NetGain Partnership)

May 27 The Future Of Connectivity (Wall Street Journal)

May 27 The FCC's Vision for the Future of 5G (Lincoln Network)

May 28 Local Community Broadband: A Good Answer to Internet Connectivity (Merit Network)

May 29 Broadband on the Hill: A Legislative Update (Schools Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition)

May 29 Transforming Into Ethical Smart Cities (Institute Without Boundaries)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Kevin Taglang.