ISPs Say Net Neutrality Repeal Won’t Change the Internet in West Virginia

Despite concern to the contrary, service providers argue the Federal Communications Commission’s recent roll back of Obama-era Internet neutrality protections won’t change the way they deliver services for the worse.

by Max Garland, The Charleston Gazette / February 26, 2018
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(TNS) — The Federal Communications Commission published its repeal of net neutrality rules in the Federal Register on Thursday, meaning the vows of internet service providers in West Virginia to not discriminate against content is one step closer to being put to the test.

Once it’s official, the FCC’s action will reverse its Obama-era 2015 Open Internet Order. That order, among other things, stopped providers from blocking or slowing down access to websites or providing a favorable “fast lane” for other sites.

Net neutrality advocates are concerned that without those regulations in place, internet providers will have too much power over what sites can be accessed and when — meaning internet speed and reliability provided by these companies would no longer be “neutral.”

Telecommunications giants like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T have strongly supported the move, saying the 2015 order stifles investment and innovation. They also argue intentionally slowing or speeding up any web traffic would simply make customers jump to a competitor.

Frontier, West Virginia’s largest internet service provider and often the only option in rural areas of the state, sent a letter to the FCC in July applauding the commission’s proposed repeal, saying the regulations are outdated.

In the letter, Frontier said it has a core commitment to “treating all Internet traffic the same regardless of content.”

“Indeed, the combination of competition in the broadband market and consumer expectations would significantly discipline any company that sought to micromanage a user’s content,” the letter said. “The fundamental Internet freedoms will remain as strong as ever, whether or not they are backed by outdated Title II regulation.”

According to Frontier, internet service providers aren’t the problem when it comes to the issue of net neutrality — it’s major content providers such as Google, Netflix, YouTube and Facebook that need to be looked at.

Frontier complained these companies don’t “help fund the upgrades their traffic is requiring,” adding that current FCC rules prevent negotiations relating to that from happening. The company claimed this issue prevents it from investing further in rural broadband access.

Elizabeth Cohen, an assistant professor of communications studies at West Virginia University, is among those who are suspicious of the repeal’s supposed benefits. She said there isn’t a clear incentive for Frontier to invest more in rural broadband expansion following the repeal.

“I still think there’s going to be a tremendous lag in rural America,” she said. “The logic hasn’t been explained to me that it will give providers more incentive to be innovative.”

Cohen added that Frontier’s argument seems to justify future regulation of content providers like Netflix.

“It sounds like that’s laying the foundation for them to get involved with the content providers,” she said. “That sends a bad precedent.”

Frontier said it “does not have any interest in favoring certain internet content or in interfering with anyone’s right to free speech.”

Altice USA, which owns Suddenlink Communications, also supports the repeal. It said in a statement that the company does not “block, throttle or unfairly discriminate against lawful content and are committed to ongoing transparency with our customers on those policies.”

Support for the repeal isn’t limited to large-scale internet service providers. The Hardy County-based Hardy Telecommunications, which has fewer than 3,900 customers using its internet service, is also backing the FCC’s decision.

Like its bigger counterparts, Hardy said it won’t discriminate in regard to content when the rules are off the books.

Not that Hardy, a nonprofit cooperative, would be able to prioritize content anyway, said Derek Barr, Hardy’s director of customer service, sales, marketing and human resources.

“We’ve always practiced net neutrality,” Barr said. “The only time we’ve controlled traffic is in an emergency situation. But in terms of whether Netflix gets prioritized, no. As a small company, we have to sit back and watch things happen.”

Barr said Netflix is Hardy’s biggest bandwidth haul “by far,” but he added the cooperative would have little chance of receiving any concessions from the video streaming giant. The repeal will lift some of the regulatory burden off Hardy’s small staff, such as having to file fewer federal reports in regards to net neutrality practices, he said.

Cohen said she would take less issue with the repeal “if there was true competition” among internet service providers, especially in rural areas where access is costly to establish. According to FCC data, 76.1 percent of the country has access to two or more broadband providers, while West Virginia sits at 69.96 percent access.

“What’s the incentive to invest in more infrastructure [after the repeal] if there’s no competition?” she said. “It’s not like the customers have any other options.”

The West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, which oversees broadband expansion plans in the state, has not yet taken a position on the repeal of the net neutrality, according to its chairman, Rob Hinton.

“We’re actually not prepared to make comment on that,” he said. “We’re still sorting through exactly what has been done and what the impacts will be in West Virginia.”

The repeal isn’t set in stone yet, as the Office of Budget and Management still has to review the action. Also, a number of state attorneys general, pro-net neutrality groups and companies have filed lawsuits in an attempt to reverse the FCC’s decision.

©2018 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.