Rural Broadband: The Red Herring of Net Neutrality
Back in 2014, the FCC outlined the 3 simple rules for an open internet. These rules protected the internet from broadband providers, who control your network connectivity to services. Whether you’re playing Xbox, streaming Stranger Things, listening to Weezer on Spotify or shopping online, these rules make sure your content is delivered the same.
- Transparency. Broadband providers must disclose information regarding their network management practices, performance, and the commercial terms of their broadband services.
- No blocking. Fixed broadband providers (such as DSL, cable modem, or fixed wireless providers) may not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices. Mobile broadband providers may not block lawful websites, or applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services.
- No unreasonable discrimination. Fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic over a consumer’s broadband Internet access service. Unreasonable discrimination of network traffic could take the form of particular services or websites appearing slower or degraded in quality.
Net neutrality was created by classifying broadband access as a telecommunications service, not as an information service, under Title II.
These 3 rules are pretty simple and built on the proposition that all traffic is created equal. For anyone in business, it represents the opportunity to compete. In order to see these rules today, you have to visit the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, since now the original link (fcc.gov/openinternet) redirects to the FCC’s misguided plan to roll back, calling it “Restoring Internet Freedom.”
By now, you probably know that rolling back of net neutrality will open up broadband providers to self-govern, allowing them to tier internet access, block sites and services that might compete with their own, or generally screw with the American people to push their own agenda and revenues.
What you might not know is the warped logic behind the FCC’s move and two conflicting sides to the same story.
Closing the Digital Divide
Some areas of this article comes from the FCC’s painfully long document, Restoring Internet Freedom Declaratory Ruling, Report and Order, and Order — WC Docket №17–108.
When Ajit Pai, the current Chairman of the FCC, first took office, he made it clear that broadband access for all Americans was a priority.
USTelecom, the nation’s leading trade association representing and promoting the interests of its members, broadband service providers and suppliers for the telecom industry (according to their site), states that as of 2015, about 4% of the US lacked a wired connection and .2% lacked wired or wireless connectivity.
This means not all Americans have the opportunity to enjoy the successes the internet can bring, nor the platform it can give for every voice to be heard.
This is a big problem.
The solution to bridging this digital divide is the investment in infrastructure and delivery of high-speed internet to everyone. The FCC’s rationale follows that by removing net neutrality, broadband providers can increase revenues through paid prioritization and therefore invest in infrastructure.
Per 249 of the FCC docket, “we expect that eliminating the ban on paid prioritization will help spur innovation and experimentation, encourage network investment, and better allocate the costs of infrastructure, likely benefiting consumers and competition.”
To be clear, this wasn’t a key piece in getting the first 96% of Americans online and wasn’t previously encouraged under any administration. Spending on broadband infrastructure is over $70B annually, but has declined slightly in the past 2 years while still near 10 year highs and no near the recession lows.
Despite the many, many negative results the death of net neutrality would bring, it appears paid prioritization is almost a certainty, as it is argued to be one of the main drivers of investment in the infrastructure.
The FCC docket encourages this behavior, without accountability or enforceability.
The problem is that the same USTelecom report concluded the following about rural internet access:
“There is not a monolithic broadband gap, but a range of areas that do not have sufficient broadband available to them. Policies must be targeted, addressing specific problem areas, and must be flexible to allow for economically efficient solutions. Overbroad claims of authority based on non-availability of broadband in a small subset of the country are contrary to the spirit of the Communications Act and are bad policy. So are statistical market snapshots that arbitrarily understate the extent of broadband availability and competition in order to justify broad policy intervention.”
This seems to fly in the face of the USTelecom’s very public support of the rollback of net neutrality and paid prioritization as the solution, so is a broad stroke best or a targeted strategy?
Pai seems to have adopted a conflicting view as well, showing he also aligns to USTelecom on the targeted approach. In September, 2017, Pai gave remarks at the Symposium on “The Future of Speech Online.” Towards the end, he turned his attention to the opportunity that all Americans should have via high-speed internet services. Here is what he said:
“The first of these tools involves federal subsidies.” He then goes on to describe targeted initiatives to solve this problem. “…we also voted to move forward with $2 billion in fixed broadband investment.” He goes on to clearly define that accountability will be in place when giving out tax dollars, something missing when rolling back net neutrality.
Pai then discusses modernizing regulations, but he doesn’t talk about reclassifying broadband access under Title II. “We’re aiming to reduce regulatory barriers to the installation of wireline infrastructure.” He continues by discussing 5G, satellite internet capabilities and his Gigabit Opportunity Zones plan that will also help Americans in rural areas gain internet access.
Nowhere in this speech, where he discusses rural internet access, does he mention rolling back net neutrality.
Targeted solutions are clearly a better option that a broad stroke with zero accountability. Microsoft has developed one such strategy — using television whitespaces to bring high speed internet access to rural areas.
Surely, in our great country, we can figure out a better way to provide internet access to everyone without providing a lesser experience at the same time?
Is this a Free Speech Argument?
It could be a happy coincidence that Pai had this speech at this particular Symposium. He concludes the same way I will. Paid prioritization and the rollback of the net neutrality protections will ultimately hinder rural areas in the same way it will hinder everyone — by reducing free speech.
To put it another way, everyone will have internet access, but no one has a voice.
Pai quotes George Washington, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” Then Pai goes on to say, “A strong platform that allows the people to share their ideas and inform themselves about current affairs forestalls that fate. And in a remarkably short time, the Internet has become one such platform.”
Giving everyone access to the internet is certainly a worthy goal, however placing the trust in that goal into the hands of broadband providers, accountable to stockholders and not the American people, is certainly misguided.
If you’re interested in telling the FCC to find another way to bring broadband to rural areas, take action and tell Congress.
About Matthew Sekol:
Matthew Sekol has built a career on technology, backed by a degree from Penn State in English. With a mix of creativity and a passion for computers, he has a unique perspective on life, business and technology.
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