On Monday, much to no one’s surprise, the White House promised to veto the Save the Internet Act — a bill designed to restore net neutrality protections and undo the FCC’s extremely unpopular 2017 decision to repeal them. To justify the veto, the White House opposes net neutrality has painted a picture of surging broadband investment and robust new networks, free to flourish now that Title II was out of the way.
“Since the new rule was adopted in 2018, consumers have benefited from a greater than 35 percent increase in average, fixed broadband download speeds, and the United States rose to sixth, from thirteenth, in the world for those speeds,” the White House said. “In 2018, fiber was also made available to more new homes than in any previous year, and capital investment by the Nation’s top six Internet service providers increased by $2.3 billion.”
Unfortunately for the White House, there’s no evidence to suggest any of those improvements had anything to do with killing net neutrality. In fact, many things point the opposite. Some of the data points aren’t accurate, and others are the result of policies from past administrations.
The first portion of the government’s data comes courtesy of an Ookla broadband speed report from last December, which found that average fixed broadband speeds increased by 35.8 percent in 2018. However, the speed tests at the heart of the report were conducted by Ookla users between Q2 and Q3 of last year. Net neutrality wasn’t formally repealed until June 11th of 2018 — or about halfway through the measurement period in question. There’s no evidence to suggest the net neutrality repeal impacted these numbers one way or the other, and past analysis has shown recent broadband growth to be well in line with past years.
The claim about record deployment of fiber (a favorite of Pai’s FCC) also has less to do with deregulation than the White House opposes net neutrality. At least half of 2018’s 5.6 million new fiber-connected homes are included as a condition of AT&T’s merger with Time Warner, negotiated by the previous FCC. As part of that agreement, AT&T agreed to deploy fiber to an additional 3 million homes every year; a far cry from the “light-touch regulatory scheme” the government claims was responsible for the growth.
There’s a litany of other reasons why 2018 broadband speed improvements likely had nothing to do with net neutrality. Cable operators spent much of 2018 finishing up relatively inexpensive DOCSIS 3.1 cable upgrades, which began before Trump was elected. Other improvements were courtesy of community broadband efforts the Trump FCC has actively opposed.
One of the other figures is pulled directly from a telecom lobbying group’s press release. The White House boasted that telecoms had invested $2.3 billion in better networks over the course of 2018 — but the figure seems to have come from a press release sent out by USTelecom, a major broadband lobbying group, which attributed the rise to the FCC’s new hands-off approach. But not everyone agrees: consumer groups say the connection isn’t supported by hard data — and industry CEOs have even disputed that the Title II was stifling investment.
“Whether we look at inflation-adjusted figures or nominal values, these companies did not invest $2.3 billion more in 2018 than they did in 2017,” Free Press general counsel Matt Wood told The Verge. “In fact, four of those six companies saw investment declines in 2018, and the total decline for all of them put together was more than $1.5 billion” said Wood, who pointed to his group’s own analysis of the data.
Wood said there are lots of reasons why industry investment ebbs and flows, including the level of competition ISPs face in their home territories. Few, if any, of those reasons have anything to do with the Pai FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality. As the White House opposes net neutrality, one thing is clear: ISPs have allies in the administration and in the FCC.
“To claim that large ISPs increased their spending when they did just the opposite—whatever the natural cause for such decreases—is a fraud designed to deter Members of Congress from voting for rules that their constituents need and demand by 4 to 1 margins,” Wood said.
Regardless, the Save the Internet Act still faces long odds as it winds its way through the legislative process. While it may survive a vote today in the House, it faces a tougher uphill battle in passing the Senate and avoiding a Trump veto. Should it fail, the rules could still be restored by an ongoing lawsuit filed by 23 state attorneys general.
“It’s obviously a long shot,” Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer told The Verge. “But so was stopping SOPA,” they said, referring to a hugely controversial copyright law only thwarted due to immense internet backlash.
“Either way, we’re getting more and more members of Congress on the record in support of real net neutrality protections,” Greer said. “That’s the key for restoring net neutrality in the long term, and the Save the Internet Act gives us a powerful path to push our way toward that goal.”