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A 1990 coronavirus pandemic would have been even worse than today’s version. Sure, there would have been less capability to rapidly produce therapeutics and vaccines. But also no internet economy to keep us connected via Facebook, Google Meet, and Zoom. And no Amazon to bring us all manner of essential items without breaking quarantine. There would have been no curve flattening or crushing back then.
So thank goodness the internet hasn’t buckled, much less broken. Unlike in Europe, for instance, Netflix and YouTube haven’t been forced to slow down streaming speeds and reduce video quality due to higher usage. Everything here still seems to be working pretty well. But it’s easy to imagine that not being the case. As journalist Charles Fishman reports in The Atlantic, US internet traffic carried by AT&T surged 20 percent in mid-March, with workweek network traffic now up a steady 25 percent from the pre-pandemic period.
“That may not sound like much,” Fishman explains, “but imagine suddenly needing to add 20 percent more long-haul trucks to U.S. highways instantly, or 20 percent more freight trains, or 20 percent more flights every day out of every airport in the country. In fact, none of those infrastructure systems could have provided 20 percent more capacity instantly—or sustained it day after day for months.”
Yet our digital infrastructure has met the challenge. Or to put it another way, all those hysterical predictions about how repealing net neutrality back in 2018 would ruin the internet haven’t panned out. At least not yet. Of course, some net neutrality proponents seem to have missed the good news. Or refused to accept it. Take this bizarre and cognitively dissonant headline from Wired magazine: “The Covid-19 Pandemic Shows the Virtues of Net Neutrality: Network speeds are holding up despite the crush of internet traffic. Freed from rules, broadband providers have cut investment in their systems.” Eppur si muove.
But rather than see this technology success story as a powerful data point for America’s current light-touch regulatory regime, some will continue to demand more government control. Indeed, these are probably the same folks who see Amazon’s impressive ability to weather the pandemic as, somehow, proof the company should be nationalized. It’s a “Now more than ever!” kind of thing, I guess.
One other lesson that should be learned: Apply deep skepticism to extreme activist claims that this or that policy tweak will save or destroy the American economy or some big chunk of it.Published in