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The ghost of net neutrality may soon return if progressives get their way. That is terrible news for consumers who have benefited greatly from the network investments that internet service providers (ISPs) have made over the last few years without government meddling. Should net neutrality return, those investments may quickly disappear, leaving consumers with fewer quality options and worse service.
This month, the Senate voted to confirm Biden nominee and telecom attorney Anna Gomez to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by a 55-43 margin. Her confirmation marks the end of nearly 1,000 days without a full panel of FCC commissioners and breaks the current 2-2 deadlock between Democrats and Republicans, giving Democrats a 3-2 majority.
This majority has important future political implications, as Democrats now have the numbers they need to vote on more controversial matters like net neutrality. Previously, Democrats needed the support of at least one Republican commissioner to act on anything contentious. That calculus has now changed.
During her recent appearance before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation as part of a nominations hearing, Gomez voiced strong support for net neutrality, stating, “I think that private internet access service is too important, too central, to our lives and to our economy not to have effective oversight.” She also stated that she supports reclassifying internet access under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, a change that would reclassify ISPs as “common carriers” and subject them to more government regulations, much in the same way that utilities are today.
Such a rule change, if enacted, would be significant and return the U.S. to the network neutrality framework known as the Open Internet Order (OIO) that briefly existed between 2015 and 2017 under the Obama administration. Thankfully, that framework was later rolled back by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai under the Trump administration.
Democrats routinely insist that robust government regulations are needed to prevent ISPs from slowing or blocking internet service for specific users and content providers. Net neutrality requires ISPs to treat all internet traffic and content equally. This, in theory, promotes competition and prevents ISPs from abusing the system by erecting a two-tiered system of broadband service for customers.
However, such fears are unfounded. In the six years since the FCC repealed the OIO, none of the doomsday scenarios put forward by Democrats have come to fruition. In fact, the internet is better and faster today than ever before. According to Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index, the average fixed broadband download speeds in the U.S. improved from 64.17 megabits per second (Mbps) in 2017 to 210.40 Mbps in 2023. Similarly, the average upload speeds in the U.S. improved from 22.79 Mbps in 2017 to 23 Mbps in 2023. Mobile broadband speeds have also improved dramatically over this time frame, with average mobile download speeds having nearly doubled. Today, 9 out of 10 American households can access at least 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds.
Competition between broadband providers continues to thrive. In 2013, just 17 percent of consumers couldn’t access to fixed 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband services. Today, that percentage is minuscule, with the vast majority of Americans having access to multiple choices of providers providing significantly faster internet.
There is no evidence that the absence of strict net neutrality rules has allowed ISPs to harm competition, throttle traffic, or commit any other abuses that critics fearmonger about. On the contrary, each of the improvements just discussed was made possible by the rejection of net neutrality.
Following the rollout of net neutrality regulations in 2015, research shows that U.S. telecom investment in broadband infrastructure declined by $3 billion. However, that investment rebounded by $1.5 billion in 2017 following the FCC’s decision to repeal the Title II classification. ISPs again felt comfortable making significant investments in network upgrades, with $102.4 billion being invested in U.S. communication infrastructure in 2022 alone. Unfortunately, such investments may disappear again if ISPs lose the ability to manage data traffic and charge different service prices. Control over such matters gives ISPs a critical incentive to continue investing and innovating.
While Gomez insists that she does not believe that Title II gives the FCC the authority to regulate pricing, she has also stated that net neutrality provides the FCC with robust oversight. In addition, Gomez has indicated that she does not believe the Commission needs congressional authorization to enact net neutrality.
Perhaps that is why last week, during a speech at the National Press Club, FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel announced plans for the Commission to vote on a new proposal to restore net neutrality. The FCC is not content with waiting for Congress to act; it is already taking steps for what comes next. This fact should frighten anyone who claims to care about the future of the internet. It would be a mistake for the FCC or Congress to reintroduce this deeply flawed regulatory framework.
Nate Scherer is a policy analyst with the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit us at www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org or follow us on Twitter (X) @ConsumerPal.