by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
March 6, 2015
PRESERVING AN OPEN INTERNET: THE RIGHT THING TO DO
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The Federal Communications Commission did the right thing on Feb. 26 when it voted, 3-2, to regulate the Internet as a "telecommunications service" under Tile II of the Communications Act.
It also voted, by the same margin, to prevent states from limiting competition by blocking cities and towns that want to create municipal broadband Internet service.
This is the biggest victory for Internet freedom ever, a victory for, as Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, called it, "consumer rights, free speech, and democracy."
It happened thanks to millions of people who petitioned the FCC and reminded them that net neutrality - the principle that all data is treated equally - is the keystone of a free and open Internet.
"This is your victory," said Free Press president Craig Aaron. "We did it together. Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we defend this win in Congress, in the courts and in the streets."
The FCC ruling means Internet service providers such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T can't block legal content, or establish a "pay to play" system that favors some content at the expense of others. As far as the FCC is concerned, the Internet is a public utility and ISPs are "common carriers" that must treat all users equally.
Naturally, conservatives oppose net neutrality. Heaven forbid that any thing is allowed to operate in the public interest. And the telecom companies that have spent tens of millions on lobbying to try and kill net neutrality are pinning their hopes on Republicans in Congress to undo the FCC's decision.
Various GOP proposals would either cut off funds for the FCC to enforce its rules, undermine the FCC's authority to enforce its rules, or overturn the net neutrality rules altogether.
However, President Obama is almost certain to veto any of these proposals. As he said last fall, "an open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known."
And most of America agrees. The popular support for a free and open Internet, and the willingness to fight for it, is why I think the attempts to kill net neutrality will fail. While the Web has changed greatly over the past two decades, it remains a space where everyone's voice can be heard regardless of their economic status.
As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in issuing the decision, "There are three simple keys to our broadband future. Broadband networks must be fast. Broadband networks must be fair. Broadband networks must be open.
"The American people reasonably expect and deserve an Internet that is fast, fair, and open. Today, they got what they deserve: strong, enforceable rules that will ensure the Internet remains open, now, and in the future."
And, I would add one more thing to Wheeler's statement. Broadband should be ubiquitous.
It took until a few months ago for my address in Vermont to get broadband service, and that only happened due to a federal grant to help rural areas get faster Internet.
The digital divide is real in rural America, and that's why the second part of the FCC ruling, allowing for more competition for delivery of broadband, is so important.
The story of the Internet in places such as Vermont is that of a place bypassed by the big telecom companies. It took local entrepreneurs to bring low-cost Internet to Vermont. Some of the fastest Internet in the U.S. is being provided not by Comcast or Verizon, but by a small telecom called VTel.
And while Gov. Peter Shumlin fell short of his pledge to provide universal broadband access by 2013, our state is now close to achieving that goal. The combination of federal funds and private initiative is making it happen.
The United States lags behind many nations in Internet speed, access rates, and cost of service because our nation allowed the telecom companies to maintain monopolies so we have service that is slower, more expensive, and less accessible.
It doesn't have to be that way. We can have a better Internet, but only if the FCC is allowed to do its job and maintain a level playing field for everyone.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.