By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed an end to utility-style regulation of the internet, a move the commission called the first step toward restoring online freedom and choice.
The FCC proposal, approved by a 2-1 vote May 18, would reverse the agency’s 2015 decision to reclassify fixed and mobile broadband as telecommunications services. The reclassification meant internet service providers (ISPs) were subject to the same regulations as landline and mobile telephone services.
At the time, the FCC said it was acting to block possible threats to net neutrality – the idea that internet users should have equal access to all content regardless of source.
The decision included rules against the blocking of lawful content, the slowing or speeding of specific applications or services and the paying of fees to ISPs for favored treatment.
Current FCC Chair Ajit Pai said the agency’s 2015 ruling “imposed upon all internet service providers, big and small, the heavy-handed regulatory framework designed during the (Franklin) Roosevelt administration to micromanage the AT&T telephone monopoly. “These utility-style regulations, known as Title II, were and are like the proverbial sledgehammer being wielded against the flea – except that here, there was no flea.” Pai voted in favor of the new proposal.
Protecting net neutrality is crucial to those living in rural areas, said Lu Nelson, policy program associate for the Center for Rural Affairs.
“If you choose to live in a rural area, that shouldn’t impact your ability to see the same things and have the same access as those who live in a larger community,” he explained. “With net neutrality, there is fair use for everyone. Everyone is treated equally. Without net neutrality, it allows different providers to pick and choose what takes preference if there isn’t infrastructure in a rural area.”
The FCC’s proposal could potentially lead to fewer service providers going into rural areas, limited or blocked services and variations in what is considered high-speed broadband depending on the area, Nelson said.
“It might just mean a lack of improvement (in rural areas), or it could just be easier to ignore rural areas,” he added. “It could impact everyone’s fair use in rural areas.”
Farmers and small-business operators who depend on the Internet for information or to sell products could be hampered, Nelson said. “If you live in a rural area, you may already have to deal with access issues. This could lead to slower internet speeds.
“It’s going to be a lot harder to operate a small business. For small rural businesses, they may not be able to survive without a good wired internet connection,” he said.
Becky McCray, a rancher and liquor store owner in rural northwestern Oklahoma, said she’s especially concerned for her retail business if the FCC’s proposal becomes official. “(The liquor store) would be most directly affected by the rules because I have to reach my customers,” she explained. “I don’t know when or if anybody will start to take advantage of the lack of net neutrality.”
McCray lives in Hopeton, which has about 30 residents. The nearest big city, Alva, has about 5,500. She has access to broadband in Hopeton through a telephone cooperative and said internet access played a role in where she makes her home. “We looked at a rural house closer to our ranch,” she said. “It did have internet access but it was really slow. That was one of the deciding factors. It’s a bad deal when a basic essential infrastructure item determines where you live.”
Ranchers and farmers use the internet for a variety of day-to-day tasks, including checking commodity prices, keeping up with what’s going on in the industry and maintaining equipment and sales, she said. Information in video form can be especially difficult to watch with a slow internet, McCray added.
For the liquor store, all merchandise is ordered online. “We have a cloud-based point of sale system,” she explained. “Every single transaction depends on the speed of the transaction. If that’s slow, it gives a slower experience for the customer.”
Pai said after the FCC’s 2015 ruling, small ISPs faced new regulatory burdens associated with common carrier compliance.
“Innovative providers hoping to offer their customers new, even free, services had to fear a Washington bureaucracy that might disapprove and take enforcement action against them. With the possibility of broadband rate regulation looming on the horizon, companies investing in next-generation networks hesitated to build or expand networks, unsure of whether the government would let them compete in the free market.”
To comment on the FCC’s proposal, visit www.fcc.gov/ecfs/search/filings?proceedings_name=17-108 and click on “express” in the top box on the left-hand side of the screen.