The Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants you to think that its recent decision to repeal net neutrality rules and other consumer protections is already making the internet better. However, the repeal has yet to take effect, and Democrats in Congress are currently rallying to undo it. Proponents of net neutrality rules, which prevent internet providers from playing favorites with legal web content, say the idea that deregulatory moves at the FCC and in Congress are helping consumers is simply false. They say voters should punish the GOP in the midterms for siding with big telecommunications companies instead of their customers.
Proponents of net neutrality say voters should punish the GOP in the midterms for siding with big telecommunications companies instead of their customers.
In its annual report to Congress on the progress that internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T and Verizon are making toward expanding and improving access to the internet, the FCC finds that 44 million people in the United States do not have access to a fixed or mobile internet connection with speeds that meet the FCC's basic 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speed benchmark. This is particularly a problem in rural and tribal areas, where 66 percent of residents lack access to a fixed internet connection that meets the benchmark. The agency also declined to raise this benchmark, even though internet users in some areas enjoy connection speeds four times faster or more.
On top of that, US consumers are paying more for slower speeds compared to consumers in many other industrialized nations, according to the report.
No need to worry, the FCC tells us. According to a press release from the commission, the internet is getting better because the FCC has "removed barriers to infrastructure investment" by repealing the net neutrality rules and other Obama-era regulations, ensuring that broadband deployment will reach consumers on a "reasonable and timely basis." The agency's 2015 net neutrality rules were so cumbersome that investment in broadband infrastructure plummeted in the years to follow, the report claims, but luckily Republicans took over the White House and the FCC. Now that the FCC has reversed Obama-era regulations, it says, investment in internet infrastructure is back on track.
However, net neutrality and digital rights proponents say there are glaring holes in this analysis, which has been trumpeted by Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee and a longtime opponent of the agency's net neutrality rules.
"The real issue here is that Pai's numbers are flat-out wrong," said Tim Karr, a spokesman for the pro-net neutrality digital rights group Free Press, in an email to Truthout.
Much of the broadband infrastructure investment Pai is attempting to take credit for actually began under the Obama administration.
Karr said that since taking office, Pai has insisted that total infrastructure investment among all ISPs has dropped, due to the net neutrality rules and other regulations. Karr explained that "aggregate broadband-industry investment" is not a reliable way to measure the rate of actual internet deployment, particularly in the short-term.
"Even short-term changes in investment can be misleading, since investment follows company-specific deployment cycles -- and as the companies themselves have noted, it's getting cheaper to deploy services," Karr said.
These "deployment cycles" have more to do with business decisions made by individual providers than the politics of net neutrality. In a report released last year, Free Press examined individual ISPs' deployment plans, executive statements and reports to investors, and concluded that investment in improving internet connections actually increased after the Obama-era net neutrality rules were put in place. It turned out that rules preventing ISPs from blocking or slowing access to content online did not interfere with broadband deployment, even if the ISPs opposed the rules politically.
Harold Feld, senior vice president of the digital rights group Public Knowledge, told Truthout in an interview, the FCC report's vague claims of improved investment in response to deregulation are politically self-serving and inaccurate. Feld said Pai clearly wants to show that "everything was awful" under former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee and Democrat, and that the internet is now improving under his watch. However, the industry data behind the FCC's report is from 2016, before Pai became chairman and Republicans gained a majority at the FCC. Much of the broadband infrastructure investment Pai is attempting to take credit for actually began under the Obama administration, according to Feld and other critics.
"I have never seen a report that is so utterly shameless in terms of just making up its own set of facts," Feld told Truthout in an interview, adding that claims about a reduction in investment under Obama's FCC are simply false.
Still, Pai and his fellow Republicans maintain a rosy view of internet service in the US, using vague investment projections and analysis straight from industry groups to conclude that deregulation is all that is needed to close the digital divide between internet haves and have-nots. That may fit into Republican political agenda, but it may not fly with internet users looking forward to the midterm elections.
Certain ISPs (for example, Comcast, AT&T and Verizon) enjoy monopolies in large swaths of the country -- the FCC found that two-thirds of households only have access to one high-speed provider -- leaving ISPs with little incentive to keep their customers satisfied. (Notably, their customers are decidedly not satisfied: ISPs consistently rank at the bottom of the American Customer Satisfaction Index.) For this reason, polls consistently show that a majority of voters support regulations to keep ISPs in check, particularly when it comes to privacy and net neutrality. However, this did not keep the Republican FCC from gutting its own net neutrality rules, nor did it stop Republicans in Congress from repealing highly popular privacy protections that limited how much personal information ISPs could harvest from customers without their permission.
With the midterm elections looming, Democrats in Congress appear to see the political opportunity before them. The net neutrality repeal will soon go into effect once it clears a procedural review by the Office of Management and Budget. Then Congress will have 60 days to undo the repeal under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), a tool typically used by Republicans to squash new regulations. Senate Democrats have rallied all 49 of their votes to the cause and reportedly have support from Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine. This puts them one vote away from defeating the net neutrality repeal with a simple majority and sending the issue to the House.
Replacing net neutrality does face an uphill battle in the House, where the GOP enjoys a clear majority. But the CRA effort is sure to provoke high-profile public controversy over how the government should regulate the companies that provide us with the internet -- for at least a of couple months leading into the campaign season.
If Democrats play their cards right, tax cuts and Trump tweets won't be the only issues on the minds of undecided voters this November. They may also remember that Republicans sided with the ISPs rather than consumers, and punish them accordingly.