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Opinion: Federal Broadband Expansion Needs Net Neutrality

Save for a two-year period during the Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission has allowed Internet service providers to manipulate data speeds for decades.

net neutrality lawsuit
(TNS) — If you're a streaming enthusiast, you've probably experienced some version of this scene: It's Friday night, you're ready to unwind. You cozy up with a loved one on the couch, turn on Netflix and continue binge-watching "Love is Blind."

Roughly 10 minutes in, the dreaded "buffering" circle starts spinning on your screen. Then the connection resumes. Then, 15 minutes later, the circle is back. It's hard to enjoy your favorite reality show when you're constantly getting up to reset your wireless internet router.

In some cases, these interruptions are not simply a shoddy connection, but an intentional slowing of data by your internet service provider. Essentially, internet providers are able to shake down content providers: Pay up, or your subscribers see the dreaded spinning circle. And the response from the federal agency tasked with monitoring these providers has mostly been a collective shrug.

Save for a two-year period during the Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission has allowed internet providers to manipulate data in this manner for decades. This constant slowing of internet speeds gave rise to the utopian concept of net neutrality, the notion that broadband companies should treat all users equally and grant high-speed access to any website or application without interference. Thankfully, the FCC under the Biden administration intends to restore net neutrality, a crucial step toward treating the internet as a must-have utility rather than a Monopoly game won with backroom deals. Internet providers, of course, have a right to charge customers for the bandwidth that they use, but it should be done fairly and with consistency.

Slowing internet speeds — or "throttling" in tech parlance — is antithetical to net neutrality. When the World Wide Web took off in the 1990s, the idea of an open internet was widely embraced. Yet as the information highway expanded, throttling and blocking content became more common.

In 2007, Comcast, the nation's largest internet provider, was found to be secretly blocking file-sharing services such as BitTorrent without disclosing it to its customers. From 2007 through 2009, AT&T blocked iPhone users from using applications such as Skype on its wireless network. In 2011, MetroPCS announced plans to allow streaming video only from YouTube over its 4G network, blocking all competitors.

The Democrat-controlled FCC established net neutrality rules in 2015, enforcing bans on practices such as blocking or throttling content. Yet the agency quickly repealed those rules after Donald Trump took office in 2017 and stacked the FCC with Republicans wary of government overreach and in favor of deregulation.

With the internet lacking a federal cop on the beat, states such as California, Oregon, Maine and Washington stepped up with their own internet regulations, mitigating the impact of the net neutrality repeal. Still, data manipulation remained widespread. Researchers at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that in just one year after the FCC rules changed, the nation's largest wireless carriers, including AT&T and Verizon, were throttling platforms such as Amazon and Netflix even when their networks weren't congested.

With Democrats now in control of the FCC, net neutrality is back on the table. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced last month that she intended to restore the Obama-era regulations. Last week, the agency's commissioners voted 3-2 in a party line vote to reclassify internet providers as utilities, barring them from blocking content or demanding fees for priority internet access. The agency is now accepting public comments on the proposal through early next year.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz blasted the FCC proposal as an example of an "oppressive regulatory regime." But we believe such criticism is woefully misguided. Rather than hyperventilate about regulation, Cruz should ask millions of his constituents what life is like with indequate broadband internet. He would likely find out that not only is it a barrier to digital literacy for young people trying to expand their horizons, but it hurts small businesses that rely on fast internet to grow their customer base.

We have praised the Biden administration, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature for allocating billions of dollars toward broadband expansion. Yet bridging the digital divide is not just an infrastructure problem. Laying fiber optic cables alone won't speed things up if internet providers continue picking winners and losers. We need the FCC to flex its regulatory muscle.

We urge the FCC to finalize the new net neutrality rules and unclog our nation's information superhighway once and for all.

© 2023 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.