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Preparing for the End of Net Neutrality, City Tech Leaders Warn of Widening Digital Divide

As municipal governments in New York City, Seattle and elsewhere vocally oppose a repeal, leaders also say they are preparing resources to monitor its impact once it happens.

As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prepares to repeal net neutrality protections, gov tech leaders in America’s largest cities warn that such an action would be a major blow to municipal efforts to foster equitable Internet access, potentially crippling small businesses and limiting the career and academic opportunities for residents in the middle class and lower income brackets.

In all likelihood, the FCC will vote to repeal net neutrality restrictions on Dec. 14. The issue is largely split along partisan lines; the five-commissioner FCC currently consists of three Republicans and two Democrats. A repeal would end the 2015 net neutrality restrictions created under the Obama administration preventing service providers from intentionally slowing down Internet speeds or content delivery. Without these restrictions, carriers could charge users more to access certain content or websites, and they could also reserve bandwidth for corporate partners or high bidders, leading to an Internet where some content is exclusively available to users who can afford to pay more for it.

City gov tech leaders said this week that a repeal is all but certain to make it more difficult for municipal governments to foster digital equity. As Internet access has become essential to modern life — for applying for jobs, helping kids with homework, finding health care, etc. — cities have increasingly dedicated resources toward ensuring that all residents have access to the Internet, as well as to the equipment they need to use it and the skills to efficiently navigate the space.

New York City Chief Technology Officer Miguel Gamiño said one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s priorities is to make New York the fairest big city in America. Equitable access to technology is a vital part of that. The FCC rollback, however, would greatly hamper these efforts.

“This is a big step in the wrong direction, frankly, towards achieving that in the digital environment,” Gamiño said. “To draw an analogy to the physical world, we wouldn’t tolerate the repeal of things directed toward creating equity and access in the physical space.”

Gamiño has vocally criticized the FCC’s plans for months, and he’s not alone. Mayors and gov tech execs from more than 60 cities formed a cohort earlier this year to unify pushback against repeal. In July, they penned a letter advocating against the removal of protections. In September, Gamiño and tech leaders from five other major cities — San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Washington, D.C., and Boston — visited the nation’s capital to voice concerns in person. In total, the cities represented are home to more than 26 million Americans.

This widespread fight against repeal began after a statement made by FCC chairman Ajit Pai in December 2016, suggesting a need to “fire up the weed whacker and remove” net neutrality. Pai, who was appointed FCC chairman by President Donald Trump in January and is leading the push to repeal, argues that net neutrality limits the growth of private industry. Gov tech leaders, open Internet advocates and others counter that removal weakens the egalitarian nature of the Internet, limiting creativity, innovation and free speech.

Seattle’s director of digital engagement, Jim Loter, said repeal will lead to higher Internet prices and greater confusion of choices for consumers, which will hurt low-income families to whom price is already a barrier for accessing the Internet. It would also hamper economic growth.

“Internet access is critical for starting a new business, and the loss of net neutrality will disadvantage small business owners who can’t afford additional fees to deliver their web content to customers,” Loter said.

Both Loter and Gamiño said a repeal would be the beginning or middle of this fight, rather than the end, and the next stage would be taking it to the U.S. Court of Appeals or passing net neutrality legislation at the municipal or state levels. They also said this would mean cities would have to devote governmental resources to understanding the full extent of access inequity. Seattle is already doing policy analysis in anticipation of what this might mean.

“Lots of us have already been applying significant effort to this issue because we can see down the road to the reality of what this would create,” Gamiño said

This all comes at a time when cities across the country have increasingly acknowledged the importance of digital equity, subsequently ramping up efforts aimed at inclusion. In fact, this May marked the first National Digital Inclusion week, which was created by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) to galvanize related efforts across the country. In wake of the FCC’s net neutrality repeal plan, the NDIA also released a statement warning of its potential to exacerbate digital divides. In a phone conversation this week, the group’s director, Angela Siefer, emphasized the move’s potential to cut lower-income families out of the digital arena, both in underserved urban neighborhoods and in rural areas where access to broadband choices is unavailable.

“Choosing the internet service plan that is best for one’s household assumes there is choice of Internet service providers with multiple speed and price offerings,” Siefer said. “This is not always the case, particularly in rural and inner-city neighborhoods. The Internet service market is experiencing a failure. We know AT&T has digitally redlined some low-income communities. Might the deregulation of the Internet lead to additional digital redlining? Very likely we will see the dismantling of net neutrality leading to additional digital divides.”

More than 200 private businesses — including Airbnb, Twitter and Pinterest — have also signed a letter to Pai trying to disauge him from the planned rollback. They noted that online shopping taking place on Cyber Monday was “a testement to the power of the free and open Internet to encourage entreprenuership, drive innovation, make our lives easier and to support a healthy economy.”

In a pinned Tweet, Gamiño is urging those who support net neutrality to take action and join the city governments fighting to preserve it.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.