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How Cities Can Defend Net Neutrality Using Data

Stripping net neutrality could cause low-income communities to lose high-speed access if ISPs decide to rollback service in their neighborhoods.

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions

As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prepares to vote today on the future of net neutrality, vehement debate on the issue continues to dominate the news cycle. Net neutrality is a regulatory framework intended to keep the internet open and fair by prohibiting internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or slowing down access for specific users or websites. Proponents of net neutrality argue that this regulation is paramount to ensuring that high-speed internet is available to all and that companies affiliated with ISPs or willing to pay a premium for faster speeds do not come to dominate the online world. Opponents, like FCC chairman Ajit Pai, argue that existing laws and market forces are sufficient to ensure ISPs do not create an internet dominated by the highest bidder, and that relaxing net neutrality will produce more consumer choices, lower prices, and more innovation.

Thus far, debate has mostly resolved around questions of who will dominate the internet if net neutrality is repealed, especially in the realm of the digital media sites that provide many residents with information. Less often mentioned however are the potential implications on low-income communities that could lose high-speed access if ISPs decide to roll back service in their neighborhoods.

Many residents in these neighborhoods rely on low-cost offerings or municipal broadband—internet service provided by local governments—which could both be affected if net neutrality is dismantled. “Repealing net neutrality can lead to any number of things that can create a challenge for underserved communities,” said Amen Ra Mashariki, a fellow at the Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and urban analytics lead for GIS leader Esri. However, if net neutrality is indeed repealed, rigorous data collection and visualization may prove a valuable means of holding ISPs accountable for maintaining equitable service. 

Net Neutrality and Underserved Communities

Mashariki envisions a potential future in which lucrative areas get the fastest internet speeds and underserved areas lose high-speed access. “If net neutrality is repealed, ISPs could take away bandwidth from low-income communities and go where people are doing things like high-speed trading,” he explained. In a system in which ISPs can divert bandwidth to areas where they have a financial interest, financially thriving neighborhoods may receive more resources at the expense of underserved communities, which could lose low-cost or municipally provided high-speed broadband. 

“If you start from the concept that access equals success, broadband access can make a huge difference,” said Mashariki. He pointed to education as one area in which slower internet speeds could have a significant effect on residents. “Schools that rely on broadband access will have trouble if the speed of access is throttled,” Mashariki explained. For example, one area in East Brooklyn hosts the STEM Olympics, a competition for high school students that requires significant computer programming. “If students didn’t have access to tech and broadband, preparation for and participation in this event would be impossible,” said Mashariki. Outside of the classroom, students would also struggle to complete online homework assignments if their neighborhood loses high-speed internet access.

When I was in undrgrad, my mother, who worked at IBM, had a PC in the home, and Prodigy ISP service. As a comp sci major, I was able to grow my prgrmming skills while away from school. Clear correlation between access and success. #SaveNetNeutrality #OpenDataForAll #InclusiveTech — Amen Ra Mashariki (@AMashariki) December 6, 2017

And slowing access in non-commercial areas can also stifle entrepreneurship. “The Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates of the world need access to tech and resources to achieve their potential,” Mashariki said.

GIS as an Accountability Tool

However, even if net neutrality is repealed, rigorous data collection and visualization provides a potential means of holding ISPs responsible for their actions and maintaining an open, fair internet. Mashariki calls for “Ensuring that if the rules are rolled back, there’s a critical level of transparency. This involves actively and aggressively identifying sources of data that can be used to track internet speeds.

Gathering this information is not only a means of seeing where ISPs are throttling speeds, but also a way to ensure that they don’t do so in the first place. By ensuring quality information on internet speeds across neighborhoods, cities can put pressure on ISPs to maintain high-speed broadband service in underserved communities. For, if a city notices that an ISP is diverting bandwidth from one neighborhood to another, the city can simply change the ISP it uses for broadband. “The most aggressive strategy—in line with what FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has said—would be for cities to use the power of the market to drive the effort to overcome the digital divide. They can say ‘Thank you very much, we’re going to move to someone else,’” Mashariki explained.

The possibility of cities merely publicizing ISP actions could also put pressure on companies not to divert service from underserved areas. “Cities can also do what New York has done and publish their own report and an open letter if an ISP is not doing what it contractually said it would do,” Mashariki said. Revealing ISPs’ failures to meet their commitments to provide low-cost or equitable municipal broadand would produce increased public scrutiny on the companies and encourage others to unsubscribe from their service—outcomes they would surely seek to avoid.

Creating an Effective Visualization

Creating a GIS tool that can hold ISPs accountable requires meticulous and creative data collection. One valuable source of data is ISPs themselves, which provide the FCC with publicly available data on their highest advertised speeds across neighborhoods. However, “Cities should not just rely on what ISPs are telling them,” Mashariki emphasized.

Mashariki pointed to the Universal Service Administration Company (USAC)—a quasi-federal agency that works with the FCC towards a vision of universal high-speed internet access—as another potential source. USAC works directly with communities to gather data on internet speeds, and provides subsidies for neighborhoods willing to publish this information.

Yet, gaining a reliable sense of internet connectivity requires cities to get even closer to communities. For Mashariki, crowdsourcing is one potential solution. Municipalities should “rely on community-driven engagement to get an idea of what’s going on on the ground,” he said. “This may be anecdotal information from community liasons and non-profits, or even a resident who says that yesterday everything was fine, but now the internet in the local library is much slower.”

In order to collect and integrate this information with existing data, Mashariki calls for cities to invest in “online tools that residents can visit and contribute to via multiple channels.” Residents should not only be able to go to a website and input information, but also share information via Twitter, Facebook, or email. Mashariki says cities should put representatives on the ground to talk to residents about their internet access, and even ask residents questions when they come in for other services. 

Mashariki admits that there may be many other sources of data that neither he nor many city leaders have thought about yet. “We need to bring cities together to talk about what data available on the federal, state, and local levels,” he said. This may involve developing new requirements for the types of data ISPs are required to share if they enter contracts with cities.

Making this data accessible and useable by governments, advocates, and residents alike requires “aggregating with a really powerful and robust GIS,” said Mashariki. Using such a tool, cities can ensure that ISPs are truly held accountable to all the people their actions affect.

The Implications of Net Neutrality

“The conversation about net neutrality cannot be held in a vacuum,” Mashariki stressed. Net neutrality is not a standalone issue, but is related to the digital divide, access to technology, education, data poverty, diversity and inclusivity, and many other critical problems. Any conversation about net neutrality therefore must include considerations of all these related issues. “All of these things are part of the same challenge,” Mashariki said.