A Net Neutral For Whom?

Computer WiresOne of the original “demands” from the House Republicans in their communications concerning fiscal issue negotiations with the Administration was Internet Neutrality. [PCMag]  The reason this is a major cause for ultra-conservatives has serious implications for rural America, important for us because if nothing else Nevada has miles and miles of miles and miles.

Boiled down to its essence, the Republicans are advocating the deregulation of the telecommunications sector of the economy, currently overseen by the Federal Communications Commission.  They appear to be upset by 2010 FCC guidelines concerning Internet Access. [PCMag]  Those rules are particularly helpful for rural areas of the country — including:

(1) Transparency over fixed and wireless networks. In other words, ISPs and carriers must make available the ways they manage their networks, disclose their terms of service, and provide consumers with the information they need to know about how their broadband service works. (2)  No blocking of content, services, applications, and non-security compromised devices. (3)  No discrimination against lawful network traffic.

In other words, the telecommunications companies must provide customers with service which isn’t packaged, bundled, or constricted to their advantage, or which discriminates against lawful network traffic.  The Commission was specifically concerned for the interests of rural broadband users who in many instances may have only one provider.

“The … network effects of ubiquitous broadband will not be realized if consumers are all constrained by careful bundling, packaging, and discriminatory practices that whittle away the end-to-end structure of the public Internet,” the report said. “‘Openness’ is not just another bromide, but a principle we must tenaciously preserve. The value of open networks is not a novel concept, but the Commission must act to ensure that the genius of the open Internet is not lost.” [CW]

And the open Internet should include rural America:

“… Dean Brenner, vice president of government affairs at mobile chipset maker Qualcomm, praised the report, saying it correctly recognizes wireless broadband as a way to serve rural areas. The FCC estimates in the report that wireless broadband service covers nearly 96% of the entire U.S. population, but only 83% of the rural population.” [CW]

There’s an instructive example of what happens when the big telecommunications corporations apply their pressure to rural areas — Fire Island, New York — a location only about a mile and a half outside the NYC metropolitan area.  Verizon wanted to change its format for providing Internet access to the area:

“Verizon has asked both the New York Public Service Commission and the FCC to allow it to substitute Voice Link for copper landline in Fire Island and other locations in New York and New Jersey, claiming that Voice Link is an equivalent service. Experience on Fire Island clearly shows that it isn’t, with residents vociferously describing Voice Link as “a failed pilot”  and an “experiment that hasn’t worked.” Yet Verizon persists in its efforts to force customers to give up traditional telephone and DSL for unregulated wireless “substitutes.” [CommonC]

Verizon wanted to provide what it called “Voice Link” instead of providing service for the landlines, and instead of providing Internet access using fiber optics.  Residents complained that the Voice Link system didn’t work with such services as Life Alert, and firefighters spoke of dropped calls for emergency services.  The citizens of Fire Island were upset because the corporation was eliminating their DSL services to be replaced by a less reliable Voice Link system.  There were other problems:

“Customers didn’t have a choice — they were assigned a product that lacked many basic features — Voice Link cannot receive collect calls in case a friend is in need; it is incompatible with heart monitors that seniors rely on; small businesses cannot use it process credit cards or faxes. Yet it cost about the same as traditional phone service!” [CommonC]

Aside from the “safety” issues with this telecommunications product, the part about small business should be highlighted — small businesses in this area, although close to a major metropolitan area, could not process credit card transactions.   If the FCC rules did not protect customers from arbitrary telecommunications corporation actions, and did not prohibit discrimination among customers, then the residents of Fire Island would have had little recourse to solve their telecommunications problems with Verizon.  If the residents of Fire Island, NY had serious issues with a product which did not meet their needs — then what chance would the residents of East Deer Breath, NV have?

Eventually, Verizon backed down and offered their customers on Fire Island more choice:

“Bowing the pressure from public interest groups, local elected officials, and regulators in Washington and Albany, Verizon just announced that they will build fiber optic service to the affected Fire Island residents. Voice Link will be an option for customers who choose it.  Verizon did the right thing here, but only after advocates and policymakers held their feet to the fire. Consumer protection and universal service are common sense policies, and shouldn’t require mobilizing cadres of grassroots activists and politicians applying thumbscrews.”  [ComC 9/13]

Nor should residents in rural areas have to “mobilize” to get reliable broadband services in their homes.

Meanwhile back at the ALEC ranch, the communications companies have helpfully provided a “resolution” on their version of  net neutrality, carefully crafted to promote the interests of the telecom giants.  We’ve already been warned in this piece from the NVRDC, and we should keep watching.

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