EDITORIAL: Why pay more for less?

DO YOU READ The Columbia Paper online or in print? Google says we have more online “users” (that’s what Google calls you) than newspaper sales. A couple of hundred more each week. We welcome our web readers, but we’re worried about you.

The problem doesn’t have to do with any of you in particular. It’s your access to this and countless other small internet operations because of a proposal by the federal government to do away with a policy called net neutrality. It’s a national issue, but what happens to net neutrality in Washington, DC, matters to Columbia County, and that includes those who don’t use the internet.

It takes a lot of electronic “plumbing” to make the internet work and a few large companies with familiar names like AT&T and Verizon (among others) control the gateways to that plumbing. The current net neutrality policy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says that the rates the companies charge for using internet gateways must apply equally to all types of users, big or small. The companies aren’t allowed to create preferential rates or to block or slow down service for commercial reasons. Put another way, they can’t make it easier to get to Facebook than to columbiapaper.com.

Adjit Pai, appointed by the Trump administration to head the FCC, thinks this net neutrality is too much regulation. Chairman Pai and a majority of his fellow commissioners want to get rid of net neutrality and let the market decide the rates. That’s a compelling argument as long as you accept that the internet is just another product.

But it’s not. The internet, which supports email, websites, video and audio streaming services and a lot more, is part of our national infrastructure. The internet plumbing supports the digital innovation that defines our times. That’s why the government has a role in managing the internet and why that infrastructure doesn’t exist just for the sake of competition. It’s there for all the schools, hospitals, the critical data that shape how we lead our lives as well as the entertainment and all the other stuff, too.

Major internet providers seem to think net neutrality restricts their business opportunities. Poor AT&T reported a mere $3 billion in before-tax earnings for the third quarter of this year. Verizon scraped by with $3.7 billion.

From the way their advocates see it, those companies need the permanent 15% reduction in their income taxes that they’ll see in the new GOP tax bill. But you’d think the tax break combined with the end of net neutrality must mean that consumers will be in for improved service at a lower cost, right?

To answer that question consider a company that used to call itself Charter and now has a new name, Spectrum. Last year Charter/Spectrum, which offers both cable TV and internet service, merged with another company called Time Warner Cable. But state approval for the merger depended on a promise that the combined company would offer high speed internet service to underserved areas of northern and eastern Columbia County.

In July 2017 Charter/Spectrum agreed to pay a $13-million fine to the state for failing to live up to its promise of better local service. Sounds like a lot, but Charter is also a member of the multi-billion-dollar club.

I called Charter/Spectrum this week and a salesperson said the company has no internet service available in Chatham.

The failure of Charter/Spectrum to deliver local high speed service is not directly related to net neutrality, but it does give us all fair warning of how far we should trust the promises of major communications companies to work in the best interests of the public. Even with regulation they behave badly. Why should we believe they’ll act better once the government turns its back on reasonable limits?

Emailing the FCC might affect how the FCC votes on net neutrality. But internet trolls using stolen identities have swamped the commission with millions of phony comments, so using the internet to comment on internet policy probably won’t have much impact.

The FCC does pay attention to what members of Congress think, so it’s important to let Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Representative John Faso know that abandoning net neutrality threatens to compound the obstacles facing this county. Ask them to tell the FCC not to give away control of vital digital infrastructure to the internet gatekeepers. We already have lousy service here. Don’t make it worse by allowing private interests to charge more for less.

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