'Shallow at Best and Ridiculous at Worst': Analysis Eviscerates FCC Chair's Arguments for Killing Net Neutrality

A new analysis by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) found that Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's reasoning behind forcing a deeply unpopular repeal of federal net neutrality rules "to be shallow at best and ridiculous at worst."

In December of 2017, the FCC voted along party-lines to roll back Title II rules that barred internet service providers (ISPs) from prioritizing certain online content. While digital rights advocates continue to fight the decision, Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has so far declined to schedule a vote on a Senate-approved Congressional Reveiew Act (CRA) resolution to overturn the regulators' ruling, so the repeal officially took effect Monday. 

Pai justified the move with claims that the regulations caused a decline in broadband deployment, based upon "several outside reports that suggested carriers curtailed spending on upgrading and expanding their broadband networks when they feared regulations would erode financial returns." In other words, he believed that rules which aimed to protect consumers resulted in fewer people having internet access. That justfication, as CPI outlined in a report co-published by Salon, "is bogus."

Based on a review of Census and FCC data, CPI found that "while wireline deployment did slow while network neutrality rules were in place, it was due to at least one reason that had nothing to do with regulation: carriers were running out of potential customers." In spite of this, "Pai made no mention of the possibility that customer bases were reaching maximum capacity when he cast net neutrality as the bogeyman in May congressional testimony and during a March American Cable Association annual summit."

Additionally, in terms of increases and decreases in broadband deployment, "there's got to be more than one causal factor," said Free Press research director S. Derek Turner. "Sure, regulation could be one of those things, but there's a lot of other things that probably are more realistic or logical to talk about."

One such factor is the FCC Connect America Fund, which offers grants to support broadband efforts in rural communities. As the report pointed out:

Ahead of the rules, between mid-2012 and the end of 2014, the FCC distributed nearly $5 billion in grants to rural ISPs for broadband deployment. When the net neutrality order took effect, the FCC was deliberating future Connect America funding and only disbursed $1.12 billion, nearly 50 percent less than the amount spent the year prior.

Turner posed that "this ramp up and subsequent sharp drop in rural broadband funding created a major, and far more likely impactful factor on rural broadband availability than any regulatory policy change."

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat who voted against the repeal—and announced in April that she is stepping down from the agency, told CPI that her own research also refuted Pai's claims. "I would agree," she said, "there is no proof that the 2015 net neutrality rules caused any reduction in broadband investment."

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