Weekly Feature



2017-12-20 / Front Page

FCC dismantles net neutrality, but Erie County could see its own grid

by ETHAN POWERS
Editor

Following the Federal Communications Commission’s decision last week to nullify existing rules that previously placed regulations on internet service providers and the ways in which they connect customers to the internet, advocacy groups and politicians alike are scrambling to define just how much the FCC vote will irrevocably change the online experience for Americans.

On Dec. 14, Ajit Pai, the chairman of the commission, received help from his two fellow Republican commissioners in garnering a 3-2 vote, effectively eliminating regulations that prohibited broadband providers from dictating which websites were visited by customers or charging higher premiums for certain content.

The win for incumbent telecommunication giants such as Spectrum, Verizon and Comcast reverses the FCC’s 2015 decision under the Obama administration, which defined the internet as a public utility, much like phone service, but will also certainly become entangled in a fierce and drawn-out series of legal battles. Less than a week after the vote, more than 17 states, including New York, have stated a commitment to fighting the repeal.

Ambiguity persists as to how much average Americans could see their internet experience change as a result of the FCC’s decision, and uncertainty remains among tech companies who fear that giving the reins of internet control to the handful of companies that already exert a disproportionate amount of influence could prove to be a severe detriment to consumers.

In response to the kind of privatization that has led to roughly 48 percent of Americans having just one option for home broadband access, according to the FCC’s own data, city governments across the country are countering the monopolistic environment of internet services by building and operating their own — a stance Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke hopes the county will adopt.

“This decision powers the very few telecommunications companies to control the internet. They’ve essentially given the internet away to your cable company. That’s the simplest way to put it,” Burke said. “Your internet provider can now wield what websites you can visit and what speeds you can get them at. There are some real, dangerous consequences. This is not just about Netflix.”

Burke emphasized the issue of internet access and the lack of options for Western New Yorkers when he campaigned for his Legislature seat in 2013. Following his election victory, Burke formed the Erie County Broadband Committee, tasked with analyzing the resources available, identifying the region’s shortcomings and where there might be cost issues in seeking to provide broader access for less money. The committee ultimately released a white paper with its findings.

“What we found is that there are geographic dead zones in our community where people basically don’t have internet at all,” said Burke. “The service that was mostly used, Time Warner [now Spectrum], uses a cable line, and that’s now dated technology. Folks just have a lack of options in a monopoly-type situation.”

Burke noted that through the committee’s research, they discovered vast amounts of underused fiber cable within the region. If linked together, Burke says, the county could potentially create a network beholden to the county.

Now, in the wake of the FCC’s deregulatory decision, Burke is reigniting his proposal for the establishment of an “Erie County Broadband Network” as one way to combat the severe lack of internet services competition.

Under the plan, the county, or a separate nonprofit, would connect the vast amounts of underused dark fiber in the region to create a high-speed internet network. Rather than operate a single municipal network, the county would then lease the network to internet service providers, offering access to the company able to provide the most efficient services for the lowest cost.

Burke says the idea allows the public to regain some power over resources currently dominated by telecommunication companies, some of which have the lowest consumer satisfaction rates in the state.

“It would drive down prices, and it would create a very high-quality network that we need for economic development and public safety,” he added. “The benefits are enormous.”

The concept of a municipality connecting its residents to a network built and operated by the city is not unprecedented. More than 80 cities and towns in the United States now use such a network, the most famous of which exists in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where for less than $70, residents receive a lightning-fast, fiber-optic connection that transfers data at one gigabit per second — 50 times the average speed for the average U.S. home, according to an analysis from the New York Times.

The city received a $111 million federal stimulus grant in 2009 to construct the network, and now, through the Electric Power Board, a city-owned agency, Chattanooga is looked at as an alternative model for getting consumers connected to the internet.

Mark Bartholomew, a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law who writes and teaches in the areas of intellectual property law and technology, believes that the Chattanooga model will be one to emulate.

“I think it indeed could be a mechanism to kind of push back at this deregulatory impulse we’re seeing,” he said. “In this context, Erie County is creating the hardware and deciding who gets access to it. It’s like creating a system and setting rules for those who would want to use it.”

Bartholomew believes that the FCC’s decision is the natural progression of years of lobbying and money spent on behalf of the telecommunication giants, and one that could prove disastrous to consumers.

“Net neutrality, in plain terms, is a good thing. We shouldn’t trust ISPs to discriminate how fast we can get access to different content. It’s better to have one pathway that everyone travels,” he said. “The concern now is that ISPs will privilege certain things; many of them have relationships with content companies. Comcast has a relationship with NBC, so will Comcast make NBC shows easier to get and other shows harder to get?”

Bartholomew’s concerns echo those of consumer advocacy groups as well as pro-net neutrality activists who say the lack of competition in the market combined with a deregulatory stance will see prices driven upward as service variety spirals downward.

Prior to last week’s vote, the FCC required ISPs to treat all internet traffic equally, unlike cable providers, for example, which are able to decide which channels to provide to customers. Critics of the FCC decision say that under the new rules, internet users may no longer have access to the vastness and entirety of the World Wide Web and instead will be charged for tiered content.

While Bartholomew believes that Netflix bingeing will not become more difficult in the near future, he worries that the next big tech innovation could be stifled before achieving success due to the inherent advantage given to existing mega-companies under the new rules.

“If I was financing the next Netflix, I would be nervous about this because the ISPs might make it harder for people to access my new cutting-age technology,” he said.

Burke remains adamantly committed to the feasibility of a countywide broadband network with the ability to create competition in a market and region that sorely lacks it.

“If it’s our network, we’re not regulating them [ISPs]; we would just not allow certain ISPs who don’t respect net neutrality rules or who don’t respect a consumer’s private internet data,” he said. “Those would be conditions of having access to the network, so you cannot be an ISP on our network unless you agree to these principles.”

Given the wave of reaction in response to last week’s FCC vote, Burke envisions a collaborative effort within Erie County that will prove to be bipartisan in nature and one capable of effecting real change.

“Now that this issue becomes a national priority, I think we have a greater chance of being able to create this connectivity and of sitting down with the necessary folks and having serious discussions about it.”

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