Speak Your Piece: Net Neutrality and Rural

The FCC is poised to vote on a measure to enforce more open access to the Internet. Rural consumers could win important reforms that protect rights and expand opportunity.

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Last week the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gave us a peek into the strong Net Neutrality rules the commission will vote on February 26.

Chairman Tom Wheeler came out strongly in favor of net neutrality. That’s the principle that the Internet is a neutral playing field where all information gets treated equally, no information gets preferential treatment and no player is blocked.

Pat yourself on the back, rural America, because your voice helped move the chairman to draft this strong proposal in support of an open Internet.

More than 50 rural organizations were part of an overwhelming public-input process that supported net neutrality. These groups asked the commission to classify Internet access as a “common carrier” under federal regulations. A federal judge has said that would give the FCC the authority to enforce network neutrality rules. The big telecommunications corporations that want to run the Internet disagree. But Wheeler’s statement is an important first step in getting the FCC on board with reclassifying broadband under “Title II.”

The chairman’s statement has a lot of implications for rural communities. Here’s a brief break down of “what’s the what” in his proposal.

1. The Chairman Proposes to Use Title II
Media-policy nerds may have trouble believing this statement, but you read correctly. You are not dreaming. This really is his proposal. Chairman Wheeler is urging the commission to use the strongest authority possible so that your voice, stories, and ideas are not downgraded to the slow lane. If you were one of the 4 million individuals and groups who submitted a comment to the FCC to support this decision, you should celebrate and pat yourself on the back!

2. Rules that Protect Your Use of the Open Internet
To ensure that you get the full benefits of the Open Internet, Chairman Wheeler proposes rules that ban:

  • Blocking – a broadband provider may not block your access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices. For example, a broadband provider cannot block you from reading the website of your local newspaper or radio station in an effort to push you toward national news outlets.
  • Throttling – a broadband provider may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic. For example, an ISP cannot slow down your attempt to reach a small, local business instead of a big-box retailer or online merchandising giant.
  • Paid Prioritization – a broadband provider may not favor some lawful content over other. In other words, no “fast lanes.” A provider is not allowed speed up a national radio network’s website because they agreed to pay more than your local radio station to stream content.

3. Rules Apply to Wireless Service, Too
The net neutrality rules adopted in 2010 did not apply to wireless connections. This meant that if your phone was the primary way you connected to the Internet, you were not protected. This is a big deal, because over 55% of Internet traffic is conducted via wireless networks. This can be a particular concern in rural areas, where wireline access to the Internet is limited. Chairman Wheeler proposes that no matter how you connect to the Internet – computer or a smart phone – you would get the same net neutrality protections.

4. #BeyondNetNeutrality and on to Affordable Broadband
The first step for the FCC to establish strong net neutrality rules is to claim its power under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Now that the chairman proposes to take this first big step, the FCC could implement the rules. But if the FCC classifies broadband under Title II, other consumer protections that are vital for rural residents could come into play, as well. And the chairman’s announcement appears to indicate he’s willing to extend protection in these other critical areas.

First, if the FCC goes this route, it could require a broadband provider to honor a customer’s request for service if it’s reasonable. One story we hear a lot in rural America is from residents who say they asked for broadband service but the provider won’t serve them, even though they are serving other homes or businesses nearby. This could give consumers in this position more leverage with the broadband provider and vastly expand our right to ask for – and get – Internet service.

Second, the change could stop broadband providers from “unjust and unreasonable practices” such as redlining of low-income and rural communities. An Internet service provider would not be allowed to cherry-pick only the areas or customers it wants.

Other parts of telecommunications law would allow the commission to investigate consumer complaints. So if a community or individual realizes that the local broadband provider is not serving them fairly, they can file a complaint with the FCC and ask for help. This is increasingly important, as state governments are deciding that no one can keep telecommunications companies accountable, thus making the FCC the only agency that can intervene on behalf of consumers.

The change to regulating broadband under Title II could also provide access to more money to extend telecommunication services to rural and low-income areas. The Universal Service Fund is an annual pot of money that telephone subscribers pitch into to help ensure everyone gets affordable access to communications services. This fund could help us close the digital divide (22 million of residents in rural areas do not have high-speed broadband access). The chairman proposes to partially adopt this rule. But he says the FCC will not automatically impose new fees or taxes on broadband providers that get passed on to consumers. While his proposal is not all that is needed to close the digital divide, it leaves the door open for applying the rest of Section 254 (which covers the Universal Service Fund) in the future. I anticipate this conversation will pick up steam after the vote on the chairman’s proposal later this month.

5. Join Rural Champions and Celebrate
This is a David vs. Goliath fight, and though it is not over until the February 26 vote, we have reached an important benchmark. We should be celebrating.

Edyael Casaperalta is coordinator of the National Rural Assembly’s Rural Broadband Policy Group and an Internet Rights Fellow at Public Knowledge.

Disclosure: The National Rural Assembly is managed by the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder.

 

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