Telecom Networks and COVID19
Roslyn Layton, PhD
Center for Communication, Media and Information Technologies. Aalborg University, Denmark
The COVID-19 experience is an opportunity to review conventional wisdom of network policy and regulation and the premise that ex ante rules are needed to govern firm behavior to fulfill social goals. The crisis period in the US and other regions is associated with a set of societal restraints including lockdowns and social distancing. People used broadband networks to work remotely, learn online,  and receive healthcare, critical functions which allowed many to maintain some income, education, and health during the crisis. This note modestly explores the conventional regulatory wisdom that network providers, left to their own devices, will harm network services and users. It finds that network providers behaved in the opposite way during the crisis.
Network Behavior under Crisis
Did telecommunications network providers deceive customers, degrade content, or disfavor content?
Repealed in 2017, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Open Internet Order of 2015 (so called “net neutrality rules”) contained a complex set of rules to control broadband price, traffic, and technology. It observed that “. . . broadband providers hold all the tools necessary to deceive consumers, degrade content, or disfavor the content that they don’t like.”  The Order made many claims about networks providers “ability and incentive” to harm “openness.” Many regulatory advocates maintain that the prevailing competition laws enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, the FCC’s transparency disclosures under the 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom Order, state consumer protection laws, and market forces are insufficient to keep broadband providers in check. For example, the FTC has been policing broadband until 2015 and levied an eye-popping $100 million fine against AT&T for deception.
Advocates claim that without strong ex ante rules directed by the FCC, broadband providers will deliberately harm users and content providers. Following that assertion, the lack of the 2015 rules, and the regulators not being at their posts, broadband providers would exploit their customers through harmful pricing, degraded experiences, and blocked content. To date, there are no such reports that could be uncovered for this paper. In fact, as the following will show, the opposite happened: broadband providers lowered prices in solidarity with their customers; traffic exploded; and content providers experienced an increase (not a blocking or degradation) of demand. Moreover, where possible, broadband providers expanded capacity by adding cell sites, towers, and so on. If networks could be described with one word, they were open.
During the crisis, broadband networks experienced significant, if not record, increases in traffic. For example, AT&T noted that compared to an average day, core network traffic was up by one quarter; wireless voice minutes by 29 percent, landline voice minutes by 28 percent, and Wi-Fi calling by 88 percent. Comcast noted that network traffic was up by one-third; Verizon; one-fifth. Meanwhile content providers experienced record traffic and usage. Netflix claimed its highest traffic ever. Phone and video conference platform Zoom ballooned from 10 million to 200 million users. If ever there was a time for the “captive” broadband customer to be exploited, it was during the crisis. But that didn’t happen. Broadband providers behaved in the opposite way of regulatory advocates’ predictions.
In fact, over 800 US communications service providers pledged not to cut service or add fees for 90 days.  The collective efforts were promoted through the FCC’s Keep America Connected Pledge featuring more than a dozen elements including free Wi-Fi hotspots to those who need them, hundreds of millions of dollars to telehealth programs, spectrum grants to increase capacity, waived regulatory requirements to speed delivery of service, waivers to allow workers to work from home in serving the disabled, and warnings about text and phone scams. In fact, many firms went above and beyond this, offering free service, expanded eligibility for many offers, increased speeds at no added cost, free data for educational programs, suspended usage limits, waived installation fees, new hotspots, free international calling, and tens of millions of dollars in grants to schools and other valuable programs. Comcast extended free WiFi access to the end of 2020 and another 60 days of free internet to its Internet Essentials customers. Wall Street downgraded the earnings expectations a result of the action, but the firms continued the offers in solidarity with their customers during the crisis.
There could be a variety of reasons to explains why the behavior is opposite to regulatory advocates’ predictions. For example, network providers may have sensed an opportunity to demonstrate commitment and goodwill during the crisis. It could be that the FCC, even without ex ante rules, is can guide and direct firm behavior. It could also be powerful watchdogs, journalists, and customers, armed with transparency-creating platforms, keep firms in check. This suggests that market forces and consumer expectations pressure broadband network providers to behave responsibly. There was no regulatory requirement to make them behave in a responsible way, nor is there one needed.
 It is estimated that some 55 million K-12 students were out of public school during the crisis. Private school students are additional: Jacqueline M. Kory-Westlund, “The COVID-19 Crisis Is Giving Parents a Taste of Digital ‘Unschooling,’” Fast Company, March 24, 2020, https://www.fastcompany.com/90480952/the-covid-19-crisis-is-giving-parents-a-taste-of-digital-unschooling.
Before the crisis, almost 2 million US children were home schooled: “Number of Homeschooled Students in the U.S. 2016,” Statista, 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/232917/number-of-homeschooled-students-in-the-us/.
Many suggest that going forward, online schooling and home schooling will increase: Douglas Broom, “Homeschooling during the Coronavirus Pandemic Could Change Education Forever, Says the OECD,” World Economic Forum, April 3, 2020, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-homeschooling-technology-oecd/.
 “Map: Coronavirus and School Closures – Education Week,” Education Week, March 6, 2020, https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/map-coronavirus-and-school-closures.html.
 While there are many kinds of telehealth applications, usage of telemedicine is expected to surge during the COVID-19 crisis and after. This is driven in part by the need for people to remain at home, but also the relaxing of federal regulation which inhibited telemedicine. Moreover, Medicare will now cover some essential telemedicine applications which it didn’t before: “Use of Telemedicine to Surge in US as Regulations Change in Response to Coronavirus,” GlobalData (blog), March 20, 2020, https://www.globaldata.com/use-of-telemedicine-to-surge-in-us-as-regulations-change-in-response-to-coronavirus/.
 “FCC Releases Open Internet Order,” Federal Communications Commission, December 9, 2015, https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-releases-open-internet-order. Paragraph 8
 Roslyn Layton, “Net Neutrality Without the FCC?: Why the FTC Can Regulate Broadband Effectively | The Federalist Society,” The Federalist Society, November 15, 2017, https://fedsoc.org/commentary/publications/net-neutrality-without-the-fcc-why-the-ftc-can-regulate-broadband-effectively.
 “What AT&T Is Doing to Help Prevent the Spread of Coronavirus, COVID-19,” accessed April 14, 2020, https://about.att.com/pages/COVID-19.html.
 “COVID-19 Network Update,” Comcast, April 15, 2020, https://corporate.comcast.com/covid-19/network.
 Howard Waterman, “4/15 Update: How Americans Are Spending Time in the New Normal,” Verizon, March 17, 2020, https://www.verizon.com/about/news/how-americans-are-spending-their-time-temporary-new-normal.
 Simon Chandler, “Netflix Traffic Hits All-Time Highs Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Says AT&T,” Forbes, accessed April 14, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/simonchandler/2020/03/24/netflix-traffic-hits-all-time-highs-amid-coronavirus-pandemic-says-att/.
 Subrat Patnaik, “Zoom Pulls in More than 200 Million Daily Video Users during Worldwide Lockdowns,” Reuters, April 2, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-zoom-idUSKBN21K1C7.
 “Keep Americans Connected,” Federal Communications Commission, July 1, 2020, https://www.fcc.gov/keep-americans-connected.
 “Companies Pledging to Keep Americans Connected During Pandemic Go Above and Beyond the Call,” Federal Communications Commission, March 20, 2020, https://www.fcc.gov/companies-pledging-keep-americans-connected-during-pandemic-go-above-and-beyond-call.
 “Comcast Extends Free Public WiFi Access to Everyone for the Remainder of 2020,” Bloomberg.Com, June 19, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/press-releases/2020-06-19/comcast-extends-free-public-wifi-access-to-everyone-for-the-remainder-of-2020.
 “Comcast Extends 60-Days of Free Internet Service to New Internet Essentials Customers,” June 18, 2020, https://corporate.comcast.com/press/releases/comcast-extends-free-internet-service-new-internet-essentials-customers.
 Frank G. Louthan, “T, VZ, CMCSA, CCOI: Adjusting Estimates on COVID-19 Impact” (Raymond James, April 1, 2020).
Roslyn Layton, PhD is Senior Vice President of Strand Consult which produces independent research about mobile wireless technologies. She is a Visiting Researcher in Communication, Media and Information technologies in The Technical Faculty of IT and Design in the Department of Electronic Systems at Aalborg University (Denmark), one of the world’s top 40 schools for engineering. She is the Co-Founder of China Tech Threat dedicated to improving cybersecurity policy to protect people from the Chinese government. She serves as Vice Chair of the Program Committee of the Telecom Policy Research Conference (TPRC). Dr. Layton earned a PhD in business economics from Aalborg University by examining telecom network regulation across 53 countries to uncover the instruments provided the most effective regimes for mobile wireless innovation; her doctoral thesis remains as one of the few international empirical investigations of net neutrality. She is a Senior Contributor at Forbes where she translates academic tech policy for a business audience.