The Federal Communications Commission last month repealed net neutrality, which were the rules that regulated businesses that connect all of us to the internet.
By doing this, the FCC is adding a toll road to internet broadband, allowing fixed and mobile internet providers to treat some programs preferentially. Other providers and consumers could pay more for their offerings.
In 2015, the FCC found broadband to be a regulated telecom service – similar to other utilities – that must treat all consumer services the same way. Contrary to the argument of telecom companies that provide broadband and their own internet offerings, federal courts have upheld the FCC’s interpretation that the internet is similar to a highway with one speed limit for all cars.
The new FCC sees the analogy differently. The majority argues that the market, and not government, should determine which services are available to consumers and that broadband is an unregulated information service. The problem with this argument starts with the fact that most consumers have only one or at most two broadband providers in any area.
For most consumers, broadband is a monopoly and for a few it is a duopoly. In addition to offering faster speeds than presently available, that is why nearly 120 government entities in Colorado have voted to explore funding municipal broadband that would treat all offerings the same. Other internet alternatives, including mobile and satellite, are too slow to be called broadband, which starts at 25 megabit per second.
The FCC was established more than 80 years ago to ensure consumers in both urban and rural areas had equal access to telephone service. While that dream has been basically obtained, the same is not true for broadband that is generally available along the Front Range, but not in many rural areas on the eastern plains or in mountain areas on the Western Slope.
The FCC is sending mixed messages with its argument that broadband should be deregulated and that consumers would then have to file complaints about poor service with the Federal Trade Commission that has never had jurisdiction over telecom services. The FCC had specific rules governing broadband service and is overseeing the slow rollout of broadband in rural areas through awards from the universal service fund, paid for by consumers with a bill surcharge that was originally used for landline service.
Either the FCC has jurisdiction over broadband or it doesn’t. It can’t have it both ways, especially when the agency is working with telecom companies to phase out traditional landline that has served consumers well for over century and replace it with internet services, including next generation 9-1-1 that will allow consumers to text and send videos to police and fire when there is an emergency.
What makes the FCC’s vote to repeal even more troubling is that the same internet providers who say the agency should not have broadband oversight, except for providing them with universal service funds, also argue that the FCC should pre-empt state agencies from any broadband responsibilities. They argue that the free market will take of any problems.
Experience in Colorado demonstrates that it isn’t necessarily so.
_Bill Levis is an AARP Colorado volunteer advocate and expert for AARP concerning utility matters