Reports of the Death of The Internet Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Ross Marchand

June 11, 2018

In 1897, after Mark Twain’s mistaken obituary was published, it was widely reported that Twain quipped to a reporter, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”  The poor, mistaken obituary writer hasn’t been the only one to make this sort of mistake. For months, supporters of Title II regulation of the internet have declared the untimely demise of the internet, with all fervor and no evidence. Now that Title II has officially been repealed (12:01 am on June 11, 2018), its time to set the record straight.  The Twainian truth is that Title II has all but been in the ash heap for seven months after the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) December 2017 ruling to rollback internet regulations. From the December 14 repeal date, internet service providers (ISPs) knew that, if they wanted to, they could favor and throttle data without fear of punishment from the FCC. 

But as the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) has  pointed out, they didn’t because- surprise- making customers happy leads to more profit. And, more profit means more investment in faster and better broadband.  Now, as the repeal of Title II formally goes on the books today, internet providers will have even more certainty to offer customers innovative arrangements that Title II barred them from. With this new, hands-off approach to the internet by the federal government, beach-goers can surf the web to find the best crab-restaurants around, and yes, double-down on the dating apps. 

But what exactly is the internet being freed from? The story begins during the previous Administration, as internet restrictions slowly but surely got stricter. Under the leadership of then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, broadband providers had to count all phone apps equally toward data caps. Innovative “zero rating,” aka free data, arrangements, which allowed customers unlimited access to selected apps, were subject to hefty federal scrutiny. 

Additionally, internet providers were no longer allowed to prevent zealous bandwidth-users from clogging everyone else’s internet. Unsurprisingly, Chairman Wheeler wasn’t exactly in a rush to explain these complex, onerous regulations to the American public, and only made the text public after the vote to install Title II regulations. When asked to publicly release the rule text, the chairman cited “decades of precedent” and the need for “thoughtful review” in keeping the language under lock and key.

Even if the process was secret, the effects of regulations were felt across the digital domain after the rules took effect in 2015. Internet investment dropped, a strange occurrence outside of a recessionary period. Meanwhile, governments at the federal, state, and local level doubled down on a plethora of permitting and “environmental” restrictions that prevented companies from bringing Internet access to underserved areas. Fees associated with legacy environmental and historic review procedures have climbed precipitously in recent years, with providers operating in certain areas of the country experiencing 2,500 percent increases since the beginning of the decade.

This slide toward more restrictions at all levels of government halted last January, with the appointment of Ajit Pai as Chairman of the FCC. The new leader reversed the Commission’s ban on “zero ratings,” allowing customers lower cell phone bills and more browsing choices. The crescendo came last December, with the wholesale removal of Title II restrictions. Now, the internet is freer than ever, as browsers needn’t fear network clogs and access to vital services such as telemedicine. 

With these policy changes, internet providers see new-found freedom to reach more customers at faster speeds than ever before.  According to B&C/Multichannel News, VTel chairman Michel Guité sent a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) praising Pai’s move.  According to B&C/Mutilchannel News, “Guité reminded Leahy that VTel was the first company to provide internet access in Vermont and said it was the first to build a 100% 4G LTE wireless broadband network.  He said Pai’s policies, which include eliminating network neutrality rules and easing tower siting, created a ‘positive regulatory climate’ for investment. Guité said that tower-siting deregulation had encouraged it to commit to building a new tower to improve service to Whitingham, Vt., and to light up three new 500 Mbps microwave paths to boost backhaul to Wardsboro and Dover… Guité said that, ‘just days ago,’ VTel had committed $4 million to buy some Ericsson equipment and services to upgrade its plant to allow for voice roaming and Wi-Fi calling and to begin rolling out faster broadband on the way to 5G…”

Between 2015 and late 2017 small ISPs felt the brunt of the new regulations.  Small internet providers reported to the FCC that, “the 2015 Open Internet rules hang like a black cloud over us. . . . Further, because the Commission’s reach under the Open Internet rules appears to be virtually unlimited, each of us has slowed, if not halted, the development and deployment of innovative new offerings which would benefit our customers.” A Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) member survey indicated that more than 80 percent of providers reported additional expenses from Title II, ranging from legal costs to network management changes. 

Over the past year, the FCC has made considerable progress in unshackling the internet from expensive, unneeded regulations. But, there’s always more work to be done; the FCC can further increase internet access by reducing regulatory burdens of 5G deployment and enabling White Space internet deployment across the country. But thanks to a robust, transparent effort by the federal government, the internet is as free as ever.