To listen to some, the internet is well on its way to becoming a tiered fiefdom for the sole benefit of the rich and powerful. To these Chicken Littles, the Save the Internet Act of 2019 (H.R. 1644) offers the best chance at having a free and open internet for all. The legislation would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reinstate “Title II” rules forcing internet providers to treat all data (everything from cat videos to medical applications) the same. There’s only one problem: the internet doesn’t need any saving.
In fact, download speeds have never been faster and the number of users has never been higher. Advocates of reinstating 2015 Title II regulations would go back to a time when onerous federal rules threatened broadband investments and free data for consumers. That arrangement didn’t work then and won’t work now. Consumers deserve a truly free and open internet, where innovative arrangements aren’t throttled by zealous bureaucrats.
For most of the internet age, the FCC championed greater deployment by embracing light-touch rules and giving internet providers room to innovate. That, unfortunately, changed in the Obama administration when the threat of regulation and eventual imposition of rules stopped investment dead in its tracks.
Under FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler, companies were punished for pursuing sensible network management policies, such as keeping a few users from slowing down the internet for everybody else. The commissioner was also peeved by the audacity of some companies to exempt some types of data from counting toward consumers’ data caps (“zero-rating”). That’s right, the Wheeler FCC didn’t want consumers to have free data.
This hostile attitude led to internet providers putting the brakes on deployment and investment. According to an April 2017 analysis by George F. Ford of the Phoenix Center, the act of merely proposing these Title II rules in 2010 led to the sharp drop in engagement: “investment was down about 20% to 30% over the years 2011 through 2015, costing the nation about $150-$200 billion in investment over the five-year period.” In a follow-up November 2018 paper, Ford found that the change in leadership and Pai’s drive to relax regulations in 2017 led to a dramatic turnaround. After declining for years, investment actually rose by $1.5 billion in 2017.
Finally, in December 2017, the FCC voted to nix Title II rules once and for all. Critics of this new approach predicted the sky would fall and argued that companies would now freely throttle data they couldn’t monetize. The internet would become the sole domain of the rich, where access to videos and games would be stymied except for those with the means to pay. This argument always seemed bizarre to long-time internet users, since the digital domain was never a fiefdom before the imposition of Title II rules under President Obama. Nevertheless, they persisted with their specious arguments.
Thanks to an app called Wehe (that relies on user-sourced data) internet users can get a birds-eye view on mobile app speeds before and after the official repeal of Title II rules on June 11, 2018. Interestingly, the three largest providers (Verizon, AT&T, and TMobile) have not been slowing down popular, bandwidth-heavy apps such as Youtube, Netflix, and Amazon. Across the internet, download speeds are increasing - not decreasing. According to internet speed-test company Ookla, broadband download speeds in the US increased by more than a third in 2018. Where’s the throttling we were promised?
But just as surely as the internet marches forward, backwards policies can reverse this progress. The return of heavy-handed rules could slow down the internet and jeopardize gains in investment and deployment. The internet only needs saving from misguided regulations that would damper the digital domain. Any congressional attempts to bring back Title II regulations will set back broadband investment and hinder the closing of the digital divide.