Media Musings: On Net Neutrality & Broadband Adoption

I'm fielding questions this morning about the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit's decision on the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) net neutrality laws, which has many heralding the death of an open Internet.

Net neutrality has been a pitched battle between commercial telecommunications providers and consumer advocates for years now, and today's ruling hardly surprises me. But It's got me thinking about a lot of things, including that last vestige of free media, public access, and the importance of community broadband here in Yolo County.

But regarding the Court's decision today, while the decision was not a good one, I think it's more accurate to call net neutrality mostly dead at this point.

First, the Court partially struck down the FCC"s net neutrality rules because the in the its opinion, the Commission did not properly justify its anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules. The FCC established those rules in 2010's Open Internet Order, which forbid Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from blocking services or charging content providers for access to their networks. The problem here is that the FCC failed to be clear in its rulemaking when it did not declare ISPs as common carriers, yet imposed restrictions that would typically apply to common carriers. In layperson's language, if you're a common carrier, you carry the content but don't mess with or infringe upon it in any way.

What Verizon (who challenged the entire order and got handed a big win today), and arguably other big telecom companies, want to do is implement pay-to-play deals that would prioritize some kinds of traffic by allowing them to pay for a faster path to customers. Netflix is the most commonly offered example, but the potential for how this could play out is grim: all the activities we, the people engage in on the internet and rather take for granted, will now become part of a complicated system wherein some content is accessible only if you can afford it (and that assumes fees beyond those incurred by subscribing to an ISP in the first place). 

What the FCC said in 2010 is that such carriage is discriminatory. They just didn't say it clearly enough, and this is one example of where former FCC Chair Julius Genachowski really failed the American people. The FCC has never classified broadband internet access as a telecommunications service.

Our friends at Free Press have been leading the charge on Net Neutraility for years. They are argue that there's hope in the form of new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who has an opportunity to correct the agency’s past mistakes and truly protect our nation’s communications infrastructure. The agency must take the necessary steps to make broadband networks open, accessible, reliable and affordable for everyone. You can find the link to their campaign and take action here

My co-worker, Jeff Shaw, was one of hundreds of media advocates who attended the Oct. 9 FCC Town Hall in Oakland, CA, with new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Jeff told me the venue was packed to overflow, and the presentation by media and consumer advocates centered squarely on low-income access to the Internet and the current transition from landline to IP service, and whether the current regulations we've come to expect--universal service being the main one--will make the transition.

As Free Press reported out, Chairman Wheeler acknowledged that the FCC has work to do to ensure that its policies have a positive impact on the public and reflect the nation’s diversity. "I really do believe what the underlying theme of all of these presentations was that, at this point in history more than any other, the networks that connect us are the networks that define us," Wheeler said. "It's not just economics or commerce, it's our culture and our individual lives. That makes our job at the FCC incredibly important. And I take that very seriously."

I really hope he does, and that it's not to late to turn the tide.

On a related topic, underlying the net neutrality issue is our country's widespread problem with broadband adoption, especially in rural areas. If it's true that "the networks that connect us are the networks that define us," then it's also true that universal, open, and affordable internet access is necessary for achieving equality. Access to all the opportunities broadband internet provides cannot be based on one's zip code, skin color or economic status.

Right here in Yolo County, which is large, largely rural and economically disadvantaged, broadband adoption has been slow to evolve. Yolo County has embarked on a collaborative broadband planning study, coordinated by Yolo LAFCo.  Currently, they are seeking input from Yolo County businesses and residents, and have designed a survey for each. You can link to the surveys here . DMA intends to support and be involved with this project, and I'm sure I'll be writing more about it in the months to come.

Autumn Labbe-Renault is executive director of Davis Media Access, as well as a media advocate and activist. Follow her on Twitter @dmafeed and on Facebook at Davis Media Access.