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Net Reality: Five Years Since the Open Internet Order

If you’re reading this, the Internet is alive and well. Today marks the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the 2015 Open Internet Order by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under Democratic leadership. The Open Internet Order was the FCC’s attempt to impose the amorphous concept of “net neutrality” on Internet service providers (ISPs) by reclassifying them under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, effectively subjecting them to regulation as public utilities.

The move was an unnecessary assault on the property rights of ISPs. Instead of letting these private companies manage their networks and serve their customers as they best saw fit under a permissionless innovation model, the Open Internet Order hung a Sword of Damocles over their heads. As quasi-public utilities, ISPs were subject to specific rules related to network management and faced the prospect of other provisions of Title II, such as price controls, down the road. Thus, the Open Internet Order immediately resulted in a decline in broadband infrastructure investment between 2014 and 2015 by $500 million and an even deeper decline of $2.7 billion between 2015 and 2016. These declines are significant given the fact they occurred outside of a recession.

Thankfully, in late 2017 the current Republican-controlled FCC repealed the Open Internet Order and ended Title II regulation of ISPs through the Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Despite the doomsday predictions of many prominent groups and public figures, today the Internet ecosystem is alive and thriving, proving the Open Internet Order completely unnecessary. Investment rebounded by $2.1 billion between 2016 and 2017 and $3.1 billion between 2017 and 2018. This new investment means more Americans are connected to an ever-improving Internet. The latest data show Internet speeds are up roughly 85 percent since the end of 2016. Per FCC data, the so-called “digital divide,” which measures the number of Americans without access to high-speed broadband, is rapidly closing:

[F]rom December 2016 to December 2018, the number of Americans without any options for at least 250/25 Mbps fixed terrestrial broadband service plummeted by 74%, from 181.7 million to 47 million. And during that same time period, the number of Americans with no options for at least 25/3 Mbps fixed terrestrial broadband service fell by 30%, from 26.1 million to 18.3 million.

In addition, more new and innovative firms are entering the high-speed broadband ISP market. Mobile carriers are rapidly deploying fifth generation (5G) technology, which will deliver unprecedented mobile broadband speeds, rivaling the capabilities of traditional fixed-broadband providers.

Perhaps the most fitting symbol of the state of the Internet post-repeal of the Open Internet Order is another anniversary occurring this week. February 22 marked the two-year anniversary of a rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. On board the rocket, built by SpaceX, were two satellites designed to test the company’s plan to beam high-speed Internet directly to consumers from outer space. Last week, SpaceX launched an additional 60 of these satellites to bring the current total to roughly 300 and counting.

So, as the days, months, and years continue to roll by since the peak of the battle over net neutrality, if you’re wondering how the Internet is doing, just picture a rocket—symbolizing both the incredible Internet speeds and new technological frontiers achievable through deregulation.