President Trump’s FCC chairman announced plans this year to rollback some Obama-era rules enforcing net neutrality, which has sparked fierce concerns over, essentially, who gets to control the Internet. Matt Markgraf speaks with Michael Ramage, Director of the Center for Telecommunications Systems Management at Murray State University, to unpack what is being proposed and how it might affect everyday Internet users in rural Kentucky.
Net neutrality is generally defined as the idea that all Internet traffic is treated the same regardless of where the packets of data are coming from - where companies and Internet providers cannot slow down, speed up or block content.
Understanding the Proposal
Net neutrality has been a controversial issue for many years, as numerous efforts to regulate the Internet has come and gone. As NPR reports, in 2015, the Obama administration passed rules that placed Internet service providers under strict rules that aimed to ensure “that no one - whether government or corporate - should control free open access to the Internet,” That’s a quote from then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
Trump’s FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told NPR that the rules are too heavy-handed and will vote in December to remove rules protecting net neutrality, bringing the Internet back to how it was in the 1990s. The FCC’s proposals were released earlier this year and several articles on the FCC website explain the concept.
Michael Ramage said the proposal centers around changing the ‘Title II’ utility classification, that broadband be considered a telecom service. Ramage said ‘broadband’ didn’t exist in the Telecom Act of 1996, when there was cable (an information service) and telephone. He said the Obama-era ruling changed the classification of broadband to give the FCC jurisdiction to regulate and control the direction of how broadband traffic is treated.
The proposed order, Ramage said, would roll that back so that broadband would be treated as an information service, thereby removing some jurisdiction from the FCC, taking away regulatory oversight from the FCC over telecom providers. He said the new order still has consumer protections through the Federal Trade Commission, which Chairman Pai said authorized that regulatory space for 20 years prior to 2015.
Ramage argues that large telecom broadband providers aren’t publicly against the idea of net neutrality (though there seems to be some inconsistency with the degree of support), but rather the FCC defining net neutrality. “In their opinion, it’s the job of Congress to set the law and for the FCC to implement that law. And under the Telecom Act of 96 where there wasn’t, frankly, the idea of broadband included, they argue that Congress needs to set the rules that the FCC follows. And to date, Congress has not acted on that topic,” Ramage said.
He said the providers want consistency over the next 10 to 20 years as millions or billions of dollars are to be invested in technology and services. The FCC doesn’t offer such consistency since every administration appoints a chair and each chair may decide to enact change. “It’s hard to plan for large amounts of money when you don’t know what the next year or the next five years are going to look like.” One could argue, however, political appointees tend to enact change affecting all sectors the economy and such is the nature of doing business in the United States (The FTC chair is also nominated by the president).
Rolling back Title II classification would not simply be a matter of returning to the Internet rules of 2015 because technology moves faster than policy makers. Ramage said even in the past two years, broadband has seen changes, for example in ever-changing and improving download speeds. What we do and what we rely on broadband for is changing dramatically. Consider how we might use high-speed wireless Internet in an era of self-driving car.
"The fact that we have no law that talks about broadband - that the majority of Americans have in their home - is remarkable. But we can't come to an agreement and we don't have the desire in Congress to address the need," Ramage said.
Concerns Over the Proposal
One of the major concerns over the proposed change is that the Internet will be throttled to some capacity, where mega-providers will hold the power to charge major companies a premium to have ‘fast-lane’ - the companies that can afford to pay like Netflix, Amazon or Facebook - who might then turn those costs onto the consumer. Some have pointed out the website ‘packaging’ in Portugal. Or that those companies that can afford to control the Internet traffic will essentially push companies and other websites who can’t pay over to the access road, as the ACLU has mentioned.
Ramage said while those scenarios might be possible, the likely outcome would be that nothing is going to change. "I would say that the average consumer in rural Kentucky is not going to see a difference in the way they access the Internet. It's not going to change the way the Internet world is seen,” he said.
He noted, under FTC consumer protection, should an issue like large-scale throttling emerge, then there would be an avenue for consumers to file grievances. "Even though broadband may go back to being an information service there still needs to be consumer protection,” he said.
Ramage said there is already a transparency requirement for providers to post on their web site what tools and technologies they use to filter things (Xfinity’s list of blocked ports -- AT&T’s list of blocked content). Ramage said Comcast is currently protecting consumers from some illegal activity. This transparency would remain under the new rules, he said.
The concerns mentioned above are valid, he said, but added if AT&T, for example, started throttling then people would switch to another provider. "If a provider started going off the rails in what they're doing then they'd see a mass exodus of consumers,” he said.
How Will this Affect Rural Areas?
Access to high-speed Internet in rural areas like west Kentucky (and east Kentucky) has long been an issue, where small businesses may struggle to compete and opportunities may be restricted simply due to a lagging modern infrastructure. Could the proposal further hinder rural America?
Ramage said some efforts are underway in Kentucky to address the broadband infrastructure issue. He noted that WK&T (a telecom co-op in the region) is working to transform the former Mid-Continent University (a private, Christian university that went bankrupt) in Mayfield into a tech park with high-speed capabilities. He said this park would help Kentucky compete with larger communities and that efforts like this won’t go away or have much of an impact under the ruling. The Kentucky Communications Network Authority installed a high-speed fiber optic network “hut” in Pikeville, Kentucky this week as part of the KentuckyWired initiative, one of many huts said to be popping up across the commonwealth.
With an increase in infrastructure, there may emerge an increase in competition. Particularly if the proposed ruling passes and providers are given some assurance they have control over their networks.
"If I'm a provider that's considering getting into the business of broadband wherever it is, I need to know what the legal environment is. Whether this ruling happens or doesn't happen, until Congress acts we're still going to be in an area where we're not certain what the legal environment is going to look like,” Ramage said.