Evolution of the internet in the U.S. since 2015

12 December 2023


The report provides an evidence-based perspective on the evolution of the internet in the U.S., in the context of the ongoing consultation on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) called Safeguarding and Securing the Open Internet. The NPRM proposes a reclassification of broadband internet access service (broadband) as a telecommunications service subject to the common carrier provisions of Title II of the Communications Act.

This report highlights how the internet grew in absence of common carrier regulations, and how the fundamental principles that shaped the internet’s early evolution still influence and direct its progress today. We show that the principles of layering, end-to-end, and network-of-networks enabled the internet to become what it is today, and are not simply abstract concepts isolated from the historical evolution of the US internet ecosystem.

  • The layering principle relates to the separation between applications and the network layer, with the Internet Protocol (IP) acting as the central, stable building block between these two layers. This enables applications to be offered separately from network services, and is the basis for the following two principles.
  • The end-to-end principle means that applications can operate between end devices (at the ‘edge’ of the network). This allows applications to be created and put on any internet-enabled device, without needing to change anything in the networks they use.
  • The network-of-networks principle enables networks to operate independently, and interconnect to form the internet, as long as they all use the Internet Protocol (IP). This principle allows new networks to be added incrementally to the existing network of networks.

This report focuses on evidence of the growth of the internet, in terms of the number of Americans connected to fixed and mobile broadband, the use they make of this connectivity and in particular the applications they demand and consume online, and their ability to take advantage of the three principles to do so.

The evidence shows that ISPs and content providers have both been investing in internet infrastructure. Statistics compiled by USTelecom show that ISPs are spending record amounts on fiber and wireless access networks. These networks are supported by core networks that span the U.S. and allow other parties, including content providers, to interconnect across the country to deliver traffic efficiently and cost-effectively. Traffic exchange mechanisms have evolved and expanded, with significant volumes being exchanged through peering and transit in public and private network interconnection arrangements. This is a concrete example of the network-of-networks principle, which allows any party to establish its own network and freely negotiate and adjust interconnection with other networks, in response to market conditions.

Conversely, we found no evidence of the relationship between content providers and ISPs leading to problematic outcomes for the development of the internet. Strong demand for OTT services including subscription video on demand services and real-time communications is being met at scale by both content providers and ISPs, without any evidence that the networks are interfering with the applications (in keeping with the layering and end-to-end principles), and indeed may be coordinating to deliver cached content efficiently. Privacy-enhancing technology is increasingly ubiquitous, including the use of HTTPS for web browsing and end-to-end encryption (E2EE) for messaging. Users have the option to use virtual private networks (VPNs) if they wish. The end-to-end and layering principles work together to enable encryption that is managed at the application level and independent from the network. We have seen no evidence that ISPs are engaging in blocking or throttling despite the absence of common carrier regulation.

As described in this report, data and outcomes clearly indicate that supply and demand for online services have kept growing strongly in the absence of such regulation: ISPs and content providers appear to work together well. Thus, in the current market conditions, the evidence shows that the existing regulatory framework is delivering good outcomes for all parties, with no apparent market failure justifying Title II reclassification of broadband.

Report (PDF)