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Revisiting the Impact of Killing Net Neutrality

Ajit Pai recently wrote an article in the National Review where he talks about how his decision as head of the FCC to repeal net neutrality was the right one. He goes on to claim that repealing net neutrality was the driver behind the current boom in building fiber and upgrading other broadband technologies. He contrasts the progress of broadband in the U.S. with Europe and says that the FCC’s action is the primary reason we are seeing a fiber boom in the U.S.

He points out that his opponents who wanted to keep net neutrality made all sorts of crazy claims about how killing net neutrality would mean killing most of what people like about the Internet. He’s right that the arguments for keeping net neutrality got wrapped into politics, and those in favor of net neutrality exaggerated most of the predicted consequences of ending net neutrality. But the claims of the benefits for killing net neutrality were also badly exaggerated by the big carriers.

Why is he writing this now? With the possibility of seating a fifth Commissioner, he knows that the issue of reinstating net neutrality and Title II authority is going to be raised at the FCC. Killing net neutrality was his crowning achievement at the FCC, and he’s defending it as a way to lobby against bringing back net neutrality. I think we’re going to see a lot of this kind of rhetoric this year about how repealing net neutrality was the right thing to do. The big ISPs will be repeating the same rhetoric being told by Pai.

But Pai is not telling the real story. Industry insiders and experts didn’t expect much change to come from repealing net neutrality. The CEOS of all the big cable companies admitted that keeping or killing net neutrality would have almost no impact on their businesses.

The real purpose of killing net neutrality was to kill Title II authority over broadband. That is an esoteric policy wonk issue and rarely got discussed during the debate. The Ajit Pai FCC gave up all rights of the agency to regulate broadband except for a few rules that Congress mandates. While there was a huge noise on both sides of the argument about killing net neutrality, the big ISPs only cared about killing regulation. That was the number one agenda item for Ajit Pai, and he handed the big ISPs everything on their wish list. If you want to understand the net neutrality issue from the big ISP perspective, substitute the word regulation for net neutrality every time they talk about the topic.

Pai cannot say with a straight face that there have been no repercussions about the end of broadband regulation. Consider Comcast and Charter, the two largest ISPs that together have over half of the broadband market. Since the end of Title II regulation, Comcast has raised rates for basic broadband to around $100, Charter is over $90 and is in the process of catching up to the Comcast rates.

At the same time, the FCC dropped all semblance of representing the public. The FCC complaint process for broadband customers might as well not even exist since nothing happens when a customer complains about mistreatment by an ISP.

Pai is taking credit for the boom in broadband competition. I’ve been advising ISPs on their expansion plans for decades, both before and after the death of Title II regulation, and I’ve never heard an ISP consider regulation as part of any discussion of expanding to a new market. Perhaps Pai can take credit for making it easier for others to compete against big cable companies since they have been free to raise rates at will—but I don’t think that’s something he wants to claim out loud. The real impetus for broadband competition came from the pandemic when many millions of customers found out that their broadband was inadequate. That experience has convinced people that they need fiber broadband and faster speeds, and fiber overbuilders are reacting to that market demand. The cable companies are rushing to upgrade speeds in response to the pressure from fiber competition.

None of the fiber boom is due to killing regulation. All that killing regulation did was allow big ISPs to run roughshod over customers without consequences. The FCC can’t even pull ISPs in to talk about their bad broadband behavior.

Ajit Pai’s accomplishment was not killing net neutrality—it was handing the reins of the broadband business to the big ISPs by allowing the ultimate regulatory capture of having the FCC walk away from its regulatory responsibilities. I’m sure that Pai is quite happy with that outcome, but you’ll never see Pai talking about what really happened.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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