The potential return of net neutrality and the future of the digital divide
Oct 19, 2023

The potential return of net neutrality and the future of the digital divide

The Federal Communications Commission is considering restoring net neutrality regulations. That could influence access to high-speed internet across the country.

The talk of late at the Federal Communications Commission is whether to restore net neutrality. 

When the Barack Obama administration put those rules in place in 2015, the idea was to ensure that internet service providers — or ISPs — like Verizon and Comcast gave consumers fair access to the web and didn’t favor sites and services they controlled. 

But that mandate was repealed two years later under then-FCC Chair Ajit Pai, chosen by then-President Donald Trump. He argued that net neutrality would disincentivize companies from building their networks in low-income, urban and rural areas.

Critics of the repeal argued that rural America’s ability to access the internet would be hurt.

After the federal repeal, some states adopted their own net neutrality regulations while others didn’t, which provided a pretty great data set for researchers wanting to know: What would getting rid of net neutrality mean for internet access in rural areas? 

Adam Rennhoff, economics professor at Middle Tennessee State University, had that exact question. One measure he looked at was internet speed.  

“Even though download speeds are getting faster everywhere, the rural consumers are falling behind in states without net neutrality protections,” Rennhoff said.  

In fact, broadband speeds decreased an average of 11% for rural customers in those states.

Supporters of net neutrality may have a point, but Rennhoff said another of their arguments doesn’t hold up so well. President Joe Biden’s FCC chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, thinks net neutrality would boost competition, leading to lower prices. 

“What we see is kind of counter to her claim. We found that there were more improvements in competition or competition was becoming more fierce, so to speak, in states that did not have net neutrality regulations,” Rennhoff said.

With net neutrality, broadband-only companies were allowed to build out their networks on utility poles that were typically reserved for telecommunications services like phone networks

Christopher Mitchell, community broadband program director at the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, said that if the FCC votes to bring back net neutrality, it would help bring high-speed internet access to everyone quicker.

“It will make it easier for small companies that are trying to build networks to get on poles to put their wires so that they can connect people’s homes,” he said.

But Kristian Stout, director of innovation policy at the International Center for Law and Economics, argues that we don’t need net neutrality as much as we once did because most of us are already online now. So how do we ensure access for every last American?  

“You don’t do that by upending or frustrating the investment incentives that have made this work really well for 90 to 95% of the country. What you do is try to figure out targeted solutions,” Stout said.

And targeted investments are already out there — the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act set aside $65 billion for high-speed broadband expansion. The Biden administration distributed almost two-thirds of that money this year.

So if the FCC brings back net neutrality, the decision might not pack the same punch it did eight years ago. 

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Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
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