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The cable industry’s top lobbying group has consistently claimed that the US’ current net neutrality rules harm network investment and raise costs for consumers.
Yet that same group is now bragging about dramatic increases in broadband speeds and claiming that broadband prices are going down.
The NCTA—The Internet & Television Association—touted Akamai’s latest State of the Internet Report this month in a post titled, “America’s Internet speeds continue to soar.”
“The US is now in the top 10 countries for adoption of Internet speeds over 15 and 25Mbps as well as the top 10 for overall average speed,” the lobby group said.NCTA boasted that “the cost per megabit has gone DOWN 90 percent over the last 10 years.”
That doesn’t mean actual monthly bills have gone down, since consumers could be paying more for faster speeds. US consumers often have little, if any, choice of high-speed home Internet providers, so cable companies don’t feel much pressure to lower prices, and many ISPs are enforcing data caps that force customers to pay more when they download and upload more data.
Nonetheless, NCTA says that “This near-quadrupling of Internet speeds in just five years is the result of constant innovation cycles and aggressive deployment of new technologies across the country.”
The US does still have a major rural broadband problem, with people in sparsely populated areas often not having access to cable or fiber. But even here, NCTA paints a rosy picture, saying, “Gigabit cities are springing up across the country in both urban and rural communities, further driving average speeds into the stratosphere.”
As we can see, the NCTA has flexible messaging and applies conflicting arguments to different situations. When the NCTA tells the Federal Communications Commission that it should roll back net neutrality regulations, the association says that the rules harm investment and raise prices on consumers. But when trying to convince the public that US broadband is a marvel of innovation and that we should all be grateful to cable companies, the NCTA says speeds are soaring and that customers are paying less.
The NCTA recently conducted a survey that found that 61 percent of respondents either “strongly” or “somewhat” support net neutrality rules against blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. Fifty-three percent support “a light-touch approach to the Internet that allows regulators to monitor the marketplace and take action if consumers are harmed.” That’s what the current rules consist of—the core net neutrality rules and a case-by-case approach to other ISP activity—yet the NCTA argued that the poll showed a “strong bipartisan consensus” against “burdensome regulations.”
Look at those speeds
The Akamai reports come out every quarter, and NCTA made a graph showing average peak connection speeds from the first quarter and third quarter of each year since 2012. These averages are based on the highest connection speed calculated from each unique IP address, according to Akamai.
The NCTA graph covers what we might call three eras of net neutrality. From 2011 to January 2014, the industry was subject to rules against blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, until a federal appeals court ruling wiped those rules out. There were no net neutrality rules throughout 2014 and much of 2015. That changed in February 2015 when the Federal Communications Commission reclassified ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, setting the stage for stricter regulation. The new net neutrality rules that we have today took effect in June 2015.
But while the NCTA claims elsewhere on its website that “Title II will increase consumer costs, slow investment and innovation, and cause years of uncertainty,” the NCTA’s graph instead shows US broadband getting better.
The latest speed increase from 70.7Mbps to 86.5Mbps is a 22.3-percent rise, the largest in any six-month period since Q1 2013, when speeds rose 31.2 percent from 26Mbps to 34.1Mbps. The NCTA chose to present six-month increments, though you can get different percentage increases with year-over-year comparisons. For example, speeds increased 27 percent in Q1 2016 and nearly 28 percent in Q1 2017 on a year-over-year basis, down from a 31-percent year-over-year increase at the beginning of 2015.
But no matter how you slice the numbers, peak broadband speeds kept increasing after the Title II decision. The cable industry chart clearly shows that US broadband speeds go up substantially each year regardless of what kind of net neutrality rules are in place or whether the industry faces Title II regulation.
Network investment vs. speed
There has been a lot of debate over whether Internet providers have increased or decreased capital expenditures since the FCC’s Title II decision. Supporters of the current rules say network spending has increased, while opponents say it has decreased. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who is leading the charge to eliminate the Title II net neutrality rules, says the rules have harmed investment in broadband and that this change justifies a return to the pre-Title II approach.
But the increasing speeds, touted even by the same lobbyists who claim Title II harms investment, are proof that the current rules are working, Senior VP Harold Feld of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge argued in a blog post today.
Because of net neutrality rules, people and companies can develop websites and online applications without fear of being throttled, blocked, or having to pay extra fees to cable companies to reach consumers. Under the idea of a “virtuous cycle,” this freedom to offer online services increases consumer demand for broadband, which in turn gives ISPs more incentive to invest in their networks.repeatedly told investors that they’re boosting network capacity and that Title II hasn’t hurt their investment plans. Even if the Title II opponents are right that total capital expenditures are going down, broadband speed data touted by the NCTA would suggest that ISPs are boosting speeds anyway because they’ve found more efficient ways to upgrade networks.
If net neutrality opponents were right, we should have slower and worse broadband today, Feld wrote. Instead, the NCTA graph shows that we’re getting better and faster broadband under Title II and non-discrimination rules, he wrote.
“While all of us out here in the real world focus on things like, ‘hey, is broadband actually getting deployed, and is it getting better and faster and stuff so we can do all the things that make better faster broadband so critical in everyone’s lives these days,’ economists poo-poo such concerns as being part of an ‘economics-free zone,'” Feld wrote.
Courts have generally allowed FCC chairs to classify ISPs however they want as long as the commission does a reasonably good job of justifying any changes in classification. Pai points to investment numbers as proof that Title II rules are harming broadband deployment and that a new classification is thus warranted.
But Feld, who is a lawyer, suggests that Pai’s plan to overturn Title II net neutrality rules could be blocked in court if he justifies it solely based on investment numbers. The FCC has a mandate from Congress to ensure that Americans get faster broadband, but there’s no requirement that the FCC has to force ISPs to spend more, he notes.
“Even if we assume carrier investment is down, but we are still getting [better and faster] broadband, then Congress doesn’t care, and neither does a reviewing court,” Feld argued.