Negating net neutrality saved the internet 

Since President Biden was sworn in, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been operating in a bipartisan manner with two Democratic and Republican members. With Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel at the helm, the FCC has moved forward several items to help benefit Americans and increase the availability of next generation telecommunications.   

The key proceedings that have been completed by this bipartisan commission include improving and promoting reliable access to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline number, working to improve efforts to stop robocalls, fulfilling the statutory requirement to update broadband maps to determine where hundreds of billions of dollars in funding is truly needed most, helping Americans increase their opportunity to be connected to broadband with the Affordable Connectivity Program, and reviewing the availability of spectrum for licensed and unlicensed use to help key up the next set of spectrum auctions once Congress restores the agency’s auction authority. 

Following FCC Commissioner Anna Gomez’s Senate confirmation on Sept. 7, 2023, the commission should continue to work together with the now Republican minority and move forward with policies that will not impede innovation and U.S. global leadership in telecommunications. That means there should not be any effort to revive and impose so-called net neutrality rules. Such regulations are entirely unnecessary in today’s vibrant and competitive broadband marketplace, and to restore them would be finding a solution in search of a problem. 

The concept of network (net) neutrality has been around since the internet first became available for public use. In 2004, then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell provided four guiding principles of internet freedom: the freedom to access lawful content on the Internet; the freedom to use applications; the freedom to attach personal devices to the network; and the freedom to obtain service plan information. The FCC adopted these principles in 2005 in its Internet Policy Statement.   

Following adoption of these principles, the internet flourished, with new innovations and increased access, for the next 10 years. There were few heavy-handed or burdensome government regulations, as had been envisioned by Congress and the Clinton administration in 1996, when they agreed to regulate the internet with a light touch. 

In 2015, then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler pushed through a significant, untested, and ultimately damaging policy. The Open Internet Order turned internet service providers from being regulated as an information service into heavily regulated common carriage providers, subject to the rules and restrictions of Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, which were written for old-fashioned dial-up telephones. This decision hampered capital investments with a 20 percent reduction in spending during the two years they were in effect and delayed new broadband deployment and innovation. A March 2017 economic analysis by the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies, found that while service providers continued to invest in new networks, investments in broadband deployment were reduced by $150 to $200 billion over the five-year period between 2011 and 2015 when the White House under President Obama pushed the FCC to adopt Title II rules. When the government increases regulatory burdens on any industry, investments and innovation decreases. 

After President Trump was elected in 2016, the FCC went from a 3-2 Democratic majority to a 3-2 Republican majority. Under then-Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC adopted the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which re-classified the internet back to an information service, which is what it had always been other than the time during which the Open Internet Order was in force. Broadband deployment increased, and new technologies providing faster and more reliable speeds were developed that enhanced networks speeds and reliability. These innovations also enabled new technologies to evolve that allowed the use not only of cable and fiber to provision broadband, but also mobile wireless, fixed wireless, and satellite, increasing competition in an already competitive space.   

However, now that the 3-2 Democratic majority has been restored, there are concerns that the FCC will re-impose the heavy thumb of government through rate setting, requiring or setting a preference for new broadband buildouts to be government-owned, and resurrecting net neutrality restrictions on internet service providers in the name of “increased competition” in the market. The focus for the FCC should not be on reconstituting failed heavy-handed regulations again on an industry that is constantly evolving. Instead, commissioners should continue the bipartisan work that has been done since January 2021 and focus on ensuring that those who do not have and want access to broadband in unserved and underserved communities across the country are finally connected. 

Deborah Collier is executive director of CAGW’s Innovation and Technology Policy Center (ITPC).

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