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Net Neutrality Repeal: Government IT Officials Respond with Trepidation

Public IT leaders worry that the end of net neutrality will harm their constituents, and are searching for solutions.

On Dec. 14, two years after the Federal Communications Commission voted for net neutrality, the commission took it all back.

A lot of state and local government IT leaders are not happy about it.

“I’m extremely disappointed, but not surprised,” said Beth Niblock, Detroit’s chief information officer.

Nobody was particularly surprised — the commission voted for repeal 3-2, along party lines, and IT experts nationwide had been talking about the vote like it was pre-ordained. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said as much before the vote. The repeal means, in so many words, that the government will no longer prevent Internet service providers from slowing down connections to some parts of the Internet and speeding them up for others. Critics also fear it could open the door to ISPs jacking up rates for consumers to access certain things at all.

The move, supported by the telecommunications industry, is highly controversial. A recent survey from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy found that 83 percent of the country, including 75 percent of Republicans, opposed the repeal. Among state and local government IT workers, it appears that any opposition to net neutrality is pretty muted.

“I literally don’t know anybody that’s supportive of the repeal,” Niblock said.

Service providers, represented by the Telecommunications Industry Association, are.

“By taking a balanced path forward, the FCC’s plan will continue this progress and accelerate U.S. technological innovation and leadership,” TIA Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Cinnamon Rogers said in a statement. “It will drive decades more investment and innovation, new high-skilled and good paying jobs, and faster and more ubiquitous networks to serve the needs of consumers and businesses.”

For government IT officials, the regulatory rollback grates against the long, ongoing battle toward improving Internet access for citizens, as well as the march toward offering more government services online.

The Digital Divide

Net neutrality proponents have long argued that a rollback of the regulations would disproportionately hurt low-income and rural communities. Those people, after all, don’t have as much money to pay for higher-tier plans if ISPs do start partitioning up their service offerings. And in rural areas, many people only have one choice of ISP. They can’t turn elsewhere if they don’t like what their provider is doing.

“Consumers don’t have the choice to vote with their wallet,” said Boston CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge.

Niblock said Detroit’s IT staff has been working on a plan to improve broadband access in the city. It’s possible that the repeal of net neutrality will make that goal more difficult, though she said it’s too early to tell how it might impact the city’s planning process.

“Depending on whose numbers you look at, 45 to 60 percent of our population does not have broadband access in their home,” she said.

A big potential problem is corporate vertical integration; that is, the trend of ISPs buying up more content-producing companies. Tony Neal-Graves, executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office, said that provides an incentive for service providers to give an advantage to their own content.

Colorado has some unique challenges in that regard, because its geographic size and mountainous terrain mean it’s expensive for telecommunications firms to connect many cities to high-speed Internet. Those people who remain unconnected, or have only one choice of provider, could be forced to turn to that content.

He’s also worried the move will slow down the process of expanding high-speed Internet throughout Colorado because telecommunications firms will have even less incentive to front the money necessary to reach rural consumers.

“My concern is that this decision will make the business case for providing service to remote communities that much more difficult because the cost of access to the broader network … could go up,” he said.

The Republican FCC commissioners dismissed those concerns during the hearing, saying that ISPs won’t act any differently than they already did.

“(This) is not the thin line between where we are right now and some Mad Max version of the Internet,” said Brendan Carr, whom Pres. Donald Trump appointed to the commission this year.

Franklin-Hodge called that view naïve. Service providers have a fiduciary responsibility to benefit their shareholders, he said, not their customers.

“It is inevitable that this has a negative impact on consumers,” he said.

How the Repeal Might Hit Government

IT officials in Oklahoma, Colorado and Boston all said they don’t anticipate the rollback of net neutrality to affect their work too much in a direct way. That’s because they have a lot more choice and competition when it comes to connectivity.

“Government has purchasing power,” Neal-Graves said. “They can control what kind of access they have.”

But that doesn’t mean it won’t matter. For one, Franklin-Hodge said, a big piece of local government IT work is citizen engagement. If citizens have a harder time expressing themselves, finding the government online or getting online in the first place, it could be harder for local government to hear its citizens.

Niblock is concerned that it could hamper government digital services too.

“We do a lot of outreach in video, but we’re not going to pay to prioritize our content,” she said. “So the delivery of services that are Internet-based, I think, are at risk.”

It’s hard to tell what might happen, but there are possible indirect impacts down the line too. Net neutrality supporters argue that with ISPs giving preferential treatment to their own content, it could become more difficult for innovative startups to get a foot in the door.

“The things you can do on the Internet have exploded, and I think that as new technologies have rolled out, especially in the areas of like artificial intelligence and chatbots and all that … we’re just not in the same place that we were two to three years ago,” Niblock said.

Will Cities and Counties Go Their Own Way?

If consumers don’t like the way ISPs use their new power, there is a possible — but expensive — out: Locally-owned broadband networks.

At the moment, ground zero for that option is Colorado. Cities and counties in that state have been voting in droves in recent years to set up local networks.

Governments worried about the consequences of the FCC vote might respond by doing the same.

“This will urge them to consider having their own infrastructure so that their citizens have choice,” Neal-Graves said.

Craig Settles, a broadband consultant who has worked with local governments, agrees that more jurisdictions will be looking into the option as a result of the repeal.

“It truly sucks what the FCC has done, but at the same time there is precedent, there is determination, there are stakeholders within the community that can lead an effort of bringing … alternatives to the table,” he said.

Settles believes such actions could actually help reign in ISPs from taking some of the actions net neutrality supporters fear.

“Once you have a credible competitor, and these municipal and co-op networks represent credible competition, then the behavior of the incumbents will change,” he said.

He pointed to the first wave of Colorado cities and counties voting to set up local networks a few years ago.

“The next day, Comcast, who was the primary incumbent in the state, immediately said ‘We’re going to have either a reduction or a freeze on subscriber fees across the state,’” Settles said. “This was not in the face of, like, the next day there were all these networks — just the fact that all these cities passed these referenda created a change in behavior.”

Colorado is a unique beast, but Settles said there are lots of other states where cities and counties can go this route. There are about 29 states that don’t restrict the ability of local governments to set up their own networks, he said. Another 11-13 have restrictions that local government can get around. Only 8-10 have restrictions so tough they effectively prevent locally-owned broadband.

He expects rural areas — facing the fewest ISP choices and the least political pushback — to move faster in setting up their own networks. Regardless, he stressed that such projects take quite a bit of time, money and effort.

“People need to understand that the desire will have to deal with the reality, and you’ll see … various states of interest and follow-through,” he said.

It’s Not Over

Net neutrality regulations may be officially repealed, but virtually nobody thinks the matter is settled.

For one thing, state governments from New York to Washington are already planning to sue over the action. On top of that, several members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have expressed interest in net neutrality legislation.

Some state and local officials have also said they will use whatever power they can to personally regulate service providers. Though the FCC’s action today included language pre-empting state and local power here, Franklin-Hodge said it was vague.

“It’s unclear what these rules mean, and my sense is that there’s disagreement among FCC commissioners as to what this rule means,” he said.

Boston, as well as New York City and others, are reviewing their options to flex their muscles with ISPs. Exactly what they’ll do isn’t clear.

“We were hoping for a different outcome today, but I think most people anticipated it this way given the dismissiveness of the FCC to so many voices speaking up,” said Miguel Gamiño, New York City chief technology officer. “So now, another set of actions will definitely be triggered and we’ll see how those things go forward.”

Niblock said that government IT leaders should at the very least be paying attention to the promises service providers are making to consumers. If they decide to take the actions advocates fear, that’s where the evidence will show up first. 

There’s also the possibility that the FCC will flip-flop on the issue again in the future. During the hearing, Clyburn cited the words of commission Chairman Ajit Pai in 2015 when the FCC first voted in favor of net neutrality. At the time, Pai predicted that the commission would reverse its course.

“Amen to that,” Clyburn said. “Amen to that.”

She’s not alone in thinking that net neutrality will return, someday, somehow.

“I think there’ll be some reaction to this decision at the congressional level. I think there are going to be some groups, maybe non-profits, who are gonna try to sue,” Neal-Graves said. “I don’t think it’s the end of the conversation.”

FCC media representatives did not return a request for comment for this article.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.