Like so many aspects of our national infrastructure, internet service has become such an integral part of our work, our personal lives, and our social interactions that we tend to take it for granted; we don’t often pay much attention to the World Wide Web until we no longer have access to it. That all changed last Thursday, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on two widely-publicized proceedings: one related to the issue of net neutrality, and another regarding petitions filed by telecommunications utilities in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to overcome state barriers to the expansion of municipal broadband networks. In two 3-2 votes, the FCC supported the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions to preempt state laws restricting municipal broadband networks, and adopted a new Open Internet Order which reclassifies broadband Internet access as a common carrier telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act.
These decisions speak to the basic tenets of democracy and equity. The internet, which is one of our country’s most sound economic engines, has also developed into a carrier of social good. It protects our right to free speech, broadens our access to information, and enables us to communicate across physical boundaries. Policies that view and protect these services as institutionalized goods to which the public should have unrestricted access reflect democratic ideals and a spirit of equality among all citizens.
Despite their relative obscurity in the public lexicon, the recent decisions made by the FCC are the product of debates in which policy wonks and advocates have been engaged for years. The issues around which the decisions are based received more public attention and increased media coverage in recent months as a result of many factors, including President Obama’s official statements addressing these topics and television personality John Oliver’s rousing (and hilarious) explanation of net neutrality on his late-night television show. This extra attention prompted a massive outpouring of comments submitted to the FCC during the proposed rules’ public comment periods. There were over 4 million comments submitted regarding the Open Internet proceedings – more than any other policy issue in the Commission’s history. This sent the clear message that, despite John Oliver’s declaration of this topic as “boring,” the American people recognize the gravity and importance of these decisions.
Perhaps you followed our previous series on the ins and outs of municipal broadband, which provided a basic overview of muni-broadband networks. Municipal (muni) networks, also referred to as community networks, are built and managed by and within city or regional boundaries. In the case of the recent FCC decision, two cities with existing community networks located in states that subsequently passed anti-muni laws petitioned to expand broadband service outside of their current footprints in response to numerous requests from neighboring unserved and underserved communities. The FCC found that provisions of the anti-muni laws in these states are barriers to broadband deployment, investment and competition, and conflict with the FCC’s mandate to promote these goals. The Commission voted to allow Chattanooga and Wilson to expand their existing networks. Chairman Wheeler, Commissioner Clyburn and Commissioner Rosenworcel voted in favor of the petitions, and in their statements underscored the importance of broadband as a necessity for local growth and opportunity and highlighted the value of municipal broadband in meeting these goals, particularly in areas where service was not provided by industry.
This represents a success for cities, underscoring the importance of local control in infrastructure investments that serve cities’ needs. In response to the FCC’s decision, NLC CEO & Executive Director Clarence Anthony stated that “today’s vote underscores the critical role of local governments in providing broadband services that are integral to a strong, 21st century economy that benefits residents and strengthens communities. Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., are examples of the successful role local governments can play to ensure that high-speed, affordable broadband is available to our cities’ residents. While their petitions to the FCC only apply to their individual municipal broadband initiatives, today’s ruling sets a precedent that acknowledges the need for local flexibility to meet individual community needs. Each community is different, and local governments must have the flexibility and authority to make the best choices for their residents.”
Open Internet/Net Neutrality
The term “net neutrality” is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. This principle became the ideological basis of the internet as we know it today; the idea of a free and open communications infrastructure did more to catalyze a new age of human connectivity than any other advancement in recent history. It also ushered in a new age of business by modernizing economic transactions and offering the perfect platform for entrepreneurs. Those who wished to start a business but lacked capital could simply build a web presence – thus, the internet became the incubator of the everyman.
The FCC’s recent vote allowed for the regulation of the internet under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, treating it as a public utility and allowing the Commission to regulate it as such. The new rules enable the FCC to prohibit paid prioritization, which would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block or restrict certain content, essentially dividing the internet into “fast lanes” for companies and higher-paying customers and “slow lanes” for the general public. More information is available in the FCC’s press release on this topic.
The FCC’s net neutrality ruling will not subject ISPs to rate regulation, tariff unbundling or any other new taxes or fees. However, opponents of net neutrality have already proposed counter-legislation and threatened lawsuits. The FCC has braced itself for a bevy of aggressive litigation.
Better for Cities
The FCC decision on municipal broadband represents a major win for local policy makers in that they restored local control and enabled the cities of Chattanooga and Wilson to provide improved services in their communities. Municipal broadband networks offer high-speed internet access at affordable prices; they encourage economic development in cities and towns; they help local government and municipal services to function more efficiently; and most importantly, they meet the specific needs of a community as defined by its citizens. Municipal networks underscore the notion that internet access is a right, not a privilege, and that local governments can and should intervene to ensure that this right is protected equally for all Americans.