In Montana, the Net Neutrality Debate is Far from Over

For the 25-and-under demographic in the state, the Federal Communications Commission’s recent reversal of Obama-era protections is top of mind.

by Tom Lutey, Billings Gazette / January 10, 2018
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(TNS) — Let's just call them Generation Net. Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester had wrapped up a presentation to Billings high school students and opened the floor for questions when the subject of net neutrality shot up like an urgently raised hand.

The public generally takes note of Internet politics, but for the 25-and-younger crowd that's known only a dot-com world, any suggestion of government action adversely affecting it is a major concern.

"I think it's everybody, and people want the Internet the way it's always been," Tester said. "The best example I have is actually Billings West, when I was there meeting with one of their senior civics classes and the first three questions were on net neutrality."

Tester and his Montana Republican counterparts, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, are being lobbied hard by constituents worried about the Internet changing for the worse as a result of a Federal Communications Commission decision in December to end Obama-era net neutrality rules.

The rules in use since 2015 were to prevent Internet service providers from blocking websites or charging companies like Facebook, Netflix and Amazon more for delivering data-rich products like video at functional speeds. Net neutrality treats the Internet more like a regulated utility with terms for equal access.

Senate Democrats are pushing to undo the FCC action by way of a Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress, with a simple majority vote, to thwart regulation changes. Tester supports overturning the FCC rule when the opportunity comes. With Alabama Democrat Sen. Doug Jones seated, Republicans have only a two-vote advantage in the Senate. Democrats assert that they can peel off two Republican votes and keep net neutrality on the books. Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is gathering signatures to force a vote.

There's more to the fight than congressional review. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has promised a lawsuit challenging the procedure leading up to the net neutrality repeal. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox won't decide whether to join the lawsuit until there is something to look at, said spokesman Eric Sell. There's isn't a lawsuit to consider just yet, however, and the Montana AG is already questioning whether the FCC erred in a way that could be challenged successfully.

Daines told The Gazette the Democrats' efforts to repeal the FCC's net neutrality ruling is a stunt -- one that isn't likely to work. A Senate vote might be close, but a congressional review vote in the House, where Republicans hold a strong majority, is unlikely to favor a net neutrality repeal. President Donald Trump is likely to veto any CRA resolution that reaches his desk.

The Internet was doing fine before net neutrality, Daines said.

"In terms of when the Internet became more broadly available, it is about 25 years old, for most of us," Daines said. "For 23 of those years, the Internet had thrived. Prices have gone down, speeds have gone up. It is a tremendous testimony to innovation and the power of technology. Net neutrality did not exist for those years. The Internet thrived without it. And then President Obama's FCC and Tom Wheeler, the chairman, put in place utility-style, heavy-handed regulations. That's what net neutrality is, and I think that is a big mistake."

Gianforte said much the same as Daines in a Wednesday email to The Gazette.

"The Internet flourished for 20 years, creating good-paying jobs and leading to innovative companies like the one Susan and I started in Bozeman. But then about two years ago, the Obama administration imposed regulations on the Internet that were a solution looking for a problem that didn't exist," Gianforte said. "Following adoption of these Obama Internet regulations, investment in broadband dropped for two years in a row. The FCC's recent decision restores the open, free Internet that existed two years ago and continues consumer protections out of the Federal Trade Commission."

Daines and Gianforte aren't the only elected officials from Bozeman to view ditching net neutrality favorably. Public Service Commissioner Roger Koopman issued a rare statement supporting the FCC decision the day of its issue.

Koopman asserted that competition among Internet service providers was doing the work net neutrality attempted to fix. He said much the same when contacted by The Gazette this week.

"It's paradoxical that the loudest voices for net neutrality are Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. All enjoyed massive growth under the light touch approach to regulating the Internet. Now that these companies have secured their market share, they're eager to use the forceful hand of government to insulate themselves from competition," Koopman said in an email. "While I respect the opinion of some that questionable trade practices may exist, adopting a uniform set of federal rules based on a law written in the monopolistic, pre-Internet days of dial telephones and Ma Bell is not the answer. Competition and freedom is."

There were pre-Obama rules on the books to assure Internet fairness. The FCC in 2005 issued a policy statement guaranteeing customers the right to access whatever lawful content they wanted. And to be able to access the Internet with whatever devices they wanted provided the devices didn't harm the network. This was the beginning of the smartphone and tablet era, as well as the explosion in applications for smart devices.

There is a need for the laws governing Internet neutrality, said Kevin Hamm of Treasure State Internet, though it's hard to see large service providers throttling down the speeds of other companies' products without in turn being throttled down by others in retaliation. Treasure State Internet is a small Internet service provider in Helena with some of the fastest speeds in the state. The backbone that provides Internet service across the country requires the multiple broadband companies share resources. In the sharing, there's incentive to play nice, Hamm said.

That doesn't mean throttling hasn't happened, Hamm said. Comcast and Netflix competed offline a decade ago in the DVD rental world. The cable company partnered with Blockbuster to create a competitor to the DVD movie mail service that launched Netflix. Netflix won the DVD war and transitioned into a video-streaming service that Comcast forced to pay a fee for set-top box distribution. Netflix cried foul, citing net neutrality rules.

Netflix won the battle, and Comcast earned the wrath of customers who wanted Netflix.

There will be laws governing the Internet companies in net neutrality's absence, Hamm said. Namely, corporate law favoring shareholders, not customers.

"The legal requirement for corporations is to make money for their shareholders," Hamm said. "They are legally obligated to find a way to make the most money."

Other Montana companies have come out in support of ending net neutrality. Missoula-based Blackfoot Telecommunications Group joined small telecoms in December to urge Congress not to repeal the FCC decision to end net neutrality. The telecoms argued the net neutrality rules were discouraging investment in broadband infrastructure.

It will be months before Democrats try to repeal the FCC's ending of net neutrality. FCC rule-making first has to appear in the Federal Register, after which a few months will pass before Congress can act. Tester said there could be action in late spring.

Hamm said Internet users will have to fight to keep net neutrality in the meantime.

©2018 Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.