Report: U.S. Broadband Performance Nearly Doubled in 2020 Compared to 2019

Fair Internet Report:

American internet users have had a very good 2020: according to research performed by FairInternetReport, median US internet speeds in 2020 doubled to 33.16mbps, up from 17.34mbps in 2019. Covering the five years of 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, this is the largest speed increase seen in the US, with speeds staying essentially the same in 2016 and 2017 (8.91mbps and 9.08mbps respectively), and 2018 recording a median speed of 12.83mbps.

The US stills lags behind many European and developed nations worldwide, and its major cities also often lag behind their European equivalents. That said, there is cause for celebration in Dallas, Seattle and Austin, after our analysis has shown that these cities are performing extremely well relative to most European capital cities.

I have seen a handful of people arguing that this report singlehandedly disproves the need for net neutrality legislation, so let’s talk about that.

It is an unfortunately common myth that the primary issue of net neutrality is internet speed in pure terms. That has been widely promoted — Twitter still has a #NetNeutrality hashflag marked by a buffering indicator — but it lacks key context. The actual concern is that internet service providers are in a position to influence winners and losers by acting less like the utility providers they are and more like an intermediate market gatekeeper.

But let us pretend that pure measurements of internet speed are what net neutrality protects. This report shows a massive spike in average internet speed — a bigger jump than any previous year. Is that because providers have invested in infrastructure? Capital expenditures were the primary reason Ajit Pai cited for eradicating net neutrality regulations enacted by the previous Tom Wheeler-led FCC. Well, no.

Karl Bode, writing for Techdirt on Friday:

This week, S&P Global took a closer look at U.S. network investment numbers and found, once again, that claims that repealing network neutrality boosted investment to be bullshit. In fact, the firm found that annual investment in fixed U.S. broadband networks is poised to have dropped 7 percent since 2016.

So why would average U.S. internet speeds see such a spike in 2020? Well, many people have been working and learning from home, and that many simultaneous connections are sure to drive many people to upgrade to a faster internet plan. That seems to be supported by recent quarterly earnings reports from major American ISPs. For example, here’s Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg:

In the total Fios, we added 144,000 new Internet net addition. That’s a 5-year high, which is just great work of our Fios with the Mix & Match as well as their offering and the quality we have on Fios. Of course, there were some pent-up demand. But all in all, it also showed the support from our customers for our Fios offering.

Here’s Comcast’s CEO Brian Roberts (PDF):

For example, this quarter, we added a record number of new customer relationships and high-speed internet subscribers, […]

I bet they did. Again, the point of net neutrality regulations is not about blanket average internet speeds, but about manipulation by service providers. Speaking of which, I seem to have truncated the quote above. Let’s try that again:

For example, this quarter, we added a record number of new customer relationships and high-speed internet subscribers, and sign-ups for Peacock have grown to nearly 22 million as of today. It is clear that Peacock’s results are enhanced by the placement and distribution it gets through our broadband service, and adding Peacock to broadband is resulting in significant improvement in both churn and gross adds as Peacock is continuously cited as a differentiating factor at the point of sale for Xfinity broadband products.

Comcast has used this position to its advantage by pulling shows from competing streaming services and offers Peacock for free to existing Xfinity subscribers. In a similar move, AT&T owns HBO and does not count data used by HBO Max against users’ limits.

This report does not prove that net neutrality regulations were a waste of time, or that getting rid of them is somehow beneficial. It only shows is that people bought faster internet service when they needed it. Other sources show that the reason for gutting net neutrality in the United States was bunk, and this action produced predictable anticompetitive effects.