EDITORIAL: Net neutrality’s a local issue

SOMETIMES WE GET LUCKY and a national or international issue has a local angle. And there’s always climate change, which, by definition, squats in everybody’s backyard. But how about net neutrality? What th’… what?

There’s a contest under way over who gets to control the Internet in this country. It has bubbled up now because President Obama has publicly urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create rules to govern the practices of Internet service providers. The rules would not allow the Internet service providers to give big media communications firms preferential treatment. The preferential treatment in this case involves allowing some digital traffic to move at speeds faster than the speeds available to the rest of us. Theoretically, the new rules would keep the net neutral–everybody gets access to the same speeds.

Oh goody. New federal regulations just in time for the holidays.

If you live in eastern Columbia County or along the county’s southern and northern boundaries, talking about Internet speed sounds like a cruel joke. Folks there are waiting for basic Internet service or for better service than they got in 1994. This is a separate problem but one related to net neutrality. Both are problems the county can’t resolve by itself.

The barriers to broadband Internet access around the county have to do with money.

Private firms supply the service via wires hanging on utility poles. It’s so expensive these days to string new cable that the companies can’t justify the investment to their shareholders. There are federal and state funds available to extend broadband Internet service, but not nearly enough to meet the need.

Congressman Chris Gibson has actively worked on trying to coordinate resources to improve service in the rural 19th Congressional District. But one of the problems he’s faced was identified by Sean Eldridge, his opponent in the election this month. Mr. Eldridge argued that it will take a national commitment to digital infrastructure development to achieve net access equality for all digitally disadvantaged Americans, a group that includes many of our neighbors.

Access is not a gift, it’s an investment in the future, no less so than the construction of the interstate highway system or the successful effort to bring electricity to rural areas. Private businesses don’t invest in infrastructure projects like the highway system until the federal government agrees to foot the bill. So while we should all hope that Mr. Gibson’s approach step-by-step approach will have some success extending service here and there, the real political challenge is for him to join with other members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to adopt legislation for a national broadband access initiative that would bring 21st century communications opportunities to all areas of this country, including the digitally “dark” corners of this county.

Don’t hold your breath. The most recent evidence suggests that if Rep. Gibson proposed adequately funding a broadband access initiative he would face intense opposition from the Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. But then just imagine that a broadband access measure did become law and isolated areas of this county finally get decent Internet service… only to discover Internet service pricing is biased against them, limiting the options of what they can see and stacking the deck against digital entrepreneurs. Without net neutrality, it could happen.

Having the FCC enforce net neutrality is step aimed at preventing that type of market control by a single company or group. But the hostility toward net neutrality was signaled in comments reportedly tweeted this week by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who wrote in part: “‘Net Neutrality’ is Obamacare for the Internet.”

You’d have to assume Sen. Cruz did not mean that like Obamacare, net neutrality will ultimately enhance opportunities for millions more Americans or that, like Obamacare, net neutrality will protect consumers from outrageous costs. But you can be sure opponents will demonize net neutrality as an attempt to undermine the free market and then turn around and give a handful of monopolies a new way to fleece the public.

Don’t kid yourself that net neutrality is somebody else’s fight, that it’s too complicated or it’s not local. Much of what you do and many of the people you know depend on the Internet. Net neutrality rules are not a perfect solution, but giving more control of the Internet to a few big firms definitely won’t make it better. Tell the FCC you support rules to enforce net neutrality. Let our federal lawmakers know that too.

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