Although the Federal Communication Commission’s implementation of Net Neutrality has earned a largely positive response, some were concerned that the move could cause Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to reduce their infrastructure spending. For Americans still waiting for their chance for broadband access, that’s bad news.


Is the FCC to blame?

On September 9, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai spoke at an American Enterprise Institute discussion regarding broadband infrastructure investment. According to Pai, ISP infrastructure spending fell 12 percent in the first half of 2015 compared to the first half of 2014. And Pai blames the reduction in spending directly on Net Neutrality, “It’s the FCC’s decision to capitulate to the President’s demands and impose Title II public utility regulation upon the Internet that is playing a large role.”

Why would an FCC commissioner criticize FCC policy? A five-member commission leads the FCC, and when the organization passed its Net Neutrality policy, it did so by a 3-2 vote. Pai was one of the two commissioners who voted against the measure, so his stance isn’t a reversal: he’s been against Net Neutrality from the beginning and warned of consequences including less innovation and more cost for consumers.

Pai isn’t the only person in a position of power within the government who feels this way. During a hearing titled “Common Carrier Regulation of the Internet: Investment Impacts,” , chair of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, expressed his concerns that, though ISPs may continue to invest in broadband improvements, that investment may plateau or decline over time.


Is spending bouncing back?

Some evidence suggests that infrastructure spending may be increasing, not decreasing. Time Warner Cable spent an additional 10.1 percent on infrastructure from the third quarter of 2014 to the third quarter of 2015, and AT&T’s spending was also up slightly.


Is it just politics?

It’s worth noting that FCC Commissioner Pai and Congressman Walden are Republicans, and Net Neutrality is largely popular among Democrats, including President Obama. This political divide doesn’t automatically make one side right and one side wrong, but it does explain some of the disagreement.

Is it possible that both sets of numbers are correct, and that spending was down for the first half of the year, but up overall after three quarters? Sure. If so, it may be because the FCC voted for Net Neutrality in February, but the rules didn’t go into effect until the end of June. The industry could have been watching and waiting, as AT&T said it would, to see how Net Neutrality played out before committing a significant amount of money to its infrastructure.

But as Congressman Walden pointed out, ISPs aren’t going to stop investing in infrastructure entirely. The only question is whether they would have spent even more in the absence of a Net Neutrality policy.


How’s your broadband infrastructure?

America’s broadband infrastructure as a whole is important to everyone, but what should matter most to you is what it looks like in your area. The best way to see the whole picture is to enter your ZIP code below to compare the speeds and prices of the plans available in your area. You may be able to find a faster plan, even if your overall investment in broadband goes down.


Where do the current candidates fall when it comes to internet policy?

In 2015, flooded by petitions of overwhelming public support, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)  ruled in favor of Net Neutrality. This decision effectively classified broadband as a utility, subject to government regulations that ensure fair access to the public. The Internets, which had been vocal in opposition to monetizing faster speeds and better access, gave a collective sigh of relief. A battle had been won, but the fight to keep the Internet free continues. Barack Obama, referred to by Fortune as our “digitizer in chief,” has been a champion for Net Neutrality. Earlier this month, he threatened to use his veto power to shut down another Republican-led assault on the unfettered Internet. This conservative offensive comes in the form of House Bill 2666, known as the “No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access.” And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Masterminded by telecommunications industry lobbyists, the bill would undermine current FCC efforts to classify broadband as a utility and exempt the industry from rate regulations. Obama’s not letting this one get by on his watch, but his time in the executive seat of veto power is nearly up. What does the future of the Internet look like under the next President? And how do the candidates view hot button topics like cyber security, broadband access, and the controversial NSA’s domestic surveillance program. The opinions on these issues from 2016’s presidential candidates are as varied as the rainbow, from supportive to misinformed to eerily silent. Let’s take a tour of the politicians whose opinions have the power to outflank industry opposition and win the war to set the Internet free.  


Hillary Clinton: The Pragmatist

Clinton has come out in support of Net Neutrality on several occasions, but with caveats. She gives voice to the industry’s repeated concern that providers will not be incentivized to innovate. However, her nuanced argument on Net Neutrality clarifies that a free market approach cannot come at the cost of access to the public. In an exclusive op-ed for Quartz, Clinton wrote, “Being pro-business doesn’t mean hanging consumers out to dry.” She stated she was in favor of “enforcing strong net neutrality” and expressed a commitment to fighting broadband monopolies. Hillary Clinton’s platform does include a commitment to ensuring 100% of households across America have access to affordable broadband services by 2020. However, her positions on cyber security and mass surveillance have supported domestic spying programs in instances where she felt national security risk outweighed an individual right to privacy. She’s referred to recent controversy surrounding the FBI-Apple debacle regarding a backdoor to the iPhone as a “legitimate dilemma,” but hasn’t been clear about how she would resolve the issue as president.  

25946025531_2c3d45aa1e_zTed Cruz: The Opponent

Cruz has expressed frequent and vocal opposition to Net Neutrality. He believes that regulating broadband as a utility actually threatens the flow of information. In a Washington Post op-ed, Cruz stated that Net Neutrality would result in “fewer choices, opportunities and higher pricing” for the average consumer. Ted Cruz went even further in his assessment in a Facebook post from November, 2014, referring to Net Neutrality as “Obamacare for the Internet.”   Cruz has yet to weigh-in on telecom monopolies and his current platform doesn’t have any specifics about broadband infrastructure. However, in a letter to the FCC in 2014, he expressed strong opposition to the government regulating broadband as a utility. Ted Cruz’s recent position supporting law enforcement’s request for a back door to the iPhone is puzzling, given his support of the USA Freedom Act, which ended the NSA’s ability to collect phone records in bulk.  

24616087404_8baa138730_zJohn Kasich: The Unknown

Kasich has yet to take a particular stance on Net Neutrality. His campaign thus far has very little to say on technologyperiod. Kasich has, however, been a vocal opponent of the NSA’s domestic spying program and his views generally align with less government regulation across all sectors. He’s dodged direct questions on the Internet, which has led to some speculation that Kasich may not be exactly sure what the internet is. During the debates in February of 2016, Kasich was questioned about his stance on cybersecurity and recent efforts by the FBI to get Apple to create a “backdoor” into the iPhone. The governor responded, “I just have to tell you that it’s best with some of these things [that they] not be said.” John Kasich suggested that the USA Freedom Act was a “step forward” but has been elusive about what other steps he might take to ensure privacy in the face of domestic spying programs.  At this point, the silence from Kasich’s campaign on technology has been deafening. He’s suggested consumers are responsible for broadband rate increases, but beyond that, Kasich doesn’t seem to have much to offer about the future of the Internet.

24349401534_3bdc739f9a_zBernie Sanders: The Champion

The Vermont senator has been a passionate and vocal champion of Net Neutrality from the beginning. He’s categorized so-called fast lanes as “grossly unfair,” and he hailed the 2015 FCC decision as “a victory for consumers and entrepreneurs.” Sanders made his position on Net Neutrality crystal-clear in a press release following the FCC decision. “The proposal would ensure that the Internet remains a space for the open exchange of ideas and information, free of discrimination and corporate control.” – Bernie Sanders This position aligns closely with the ideology of his candidacy. Sanders believes the public’s right to information trumps any argument about the free market approach to incentivizing competition among providers. His budget proposals also include funding to support bringing broadband to a wider portion of the American public. The American Society of Civil Engineers indicates Sande’s’ proposal is the only one that comes close to the estimated 3.6 trillion they believe is necessary to upgrade infrastructure. Senator Sanders has also sent letters to the FCC expressing concern about mergers and broadband monopolies. Bernie has also been a fairly staunch supporter of public privacy in the face of security threats and his legislative record proves it. Unlike Clinton, he’s voted against The Patriot Act twice and committed in a recent debate that as president, he would “end domestic surveillance” by the NSA.  

25715575431_59e9d3eac2_zDonald Trump: The Confused

Trump has made it clear that he strongly opposes Net Neutrality. But the reasoning behind his stance is rather ambiguous. In a tweet back in November, Trump insisted that Net Neutrality was a “power grab” by Obama, similar to the Fairness Doctrine.   The Fairness Doctrine is an FCC policy introduced in 1949 that required radio and TV broadcasters to present both sides of an issue of public importance in their programming.  Because Net Neutrality is not about the content of the Internet but access to it, it’s unclear exactly how it might affect conservative media. We might need to wait until the wall is built before “The Donald” will have time to clarify his position on the fight to free the Internet. While Donald Trump hasn’t made any official statements in regard to his proposed policies on technology issues, he’s alluded plenty to an aggressive stance on cybersecurity. He infamously commented that he’d like to “shut down the Internet,” and Trump’s ongoing comments support that he would always err on the side of security rather than privacy. In response to questions about the iphone backdoor, “The Donald” blasted Apple. ‘Who do they think they are?” he asked at a rally in February. Trump has since called for a boycott of Apple products until such time as the company cooperates with the FBI.

The Scorecard

[wpsm_comparison_table id=”3″ class=””] Net neutrality is a complicated issue, and also a political one. It’s understandable that we get tired of hearing politicians and lobbyists on each side of the issue seek to use it to their advantage. After a while, it’s easy to get fed up and stop paying attention, because it probably seems as if the debate doesn’t affect us directly—or at least not much. But it does affect us. A lack of resolution to the debate is slowing the building of and preventing increased access to high-speed Internet connections. As users in other countries are set to receive 2 Gbps connections, most of the U.S. is still waiting on 1 Gbps fiber. In Case You Missed It If you’ve ignored the net neutrality debate, it centers on whether Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should be required to treat all data transmitted across the Internet equally. Those against the idea argue that users who take up the most bandwidth – like Netflix – should pay more to transmit data, or have the speed of their data transmissions reduced. People in favor of net neutrality argue that giving Internet providers this power will stifle innovation and in effect extort higher fees from those users with the greatest needs for speed. Think of the Internet like a parking garage. Should the garage be allowed to charge larger vehicles more to park, because they take up more space, or should all vehicles pay the same fee, regardless of size? To continue the metaphor, one of the nation’s largest parking garage operators wants to know which way the issue will be resolved before building newer, better garages. The FCC and AT&T In a meeting with company investors, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson announced the company is pausing investment in fiber network infrastructure, saying, “We can’t go out and invest that kind of money deploying fiber to 100 cities not knowing under what rules those investments will be governed.” AT&T further claims its proposed merger with DIRECTV would allow it to bring gigabit fiber to two million additional homes. The FCC took notice of this statement, and, because there’s nothing quite so official as sending an actual letter, has sent a letter to AT&T asking for details on the company’s plans for future fiber networks. In essence, the FCC thinks AT&T is bluffing and is asking the company to prove its statement is more than politics. No Answer Is the Worst Answer Without taking a side in the net neutrality debate, it does seem likely that all companies investing in fiber networks will want to know how the debate will end before committing their resources. In any industry, businesses and investors hate uncertainty. Even if the debate doesn’t end the way Internet providers want it to, there’s no question that, at some point, they’ll resume investment in fiber. So the longer the debate drags on, the longer it will take for communications companies to put their future plans in motion. Not having an answer isn’t just bad for investors; it’s bad for consumers. While the arguments continue, the U.S. ranks 11th worldwide in average Internet connection speeds, behind Latvia and the Czech Republic. If you’re tired of waiting for someone else to sort out the issue so you can improve your online experience, do something about it yourself. Enter your zip code below to see the available plans in your area that could give you a quick speed boost. Image by Michael Coghlan/Flickr [zipfinder]
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