WASHINGTON – People inundated the offices of Rep. Brian Higgins in recent weeks with complaints about a First-World problem: a federal agency's decision to end "net neutrality," an Obama-era policy aimed at forcing internet service providers to allow the same access to all websites without playing favorites.
Meantime, in poorer parts of Buffalo and rural swaths of Erie County and the nation at large, residents still cope with Third World Internet service that's far slower than what the modern economy demands.
Those two issues may seem to be unrelated, but at least one fact appears to tie them together.
"I think the thing that gets people upset about losing net neutrality is that there's a distrust of the providers" – the companies that offer internet service, said Mark Bartholomew, an associate professor and communications law expert at the University at Buffalo School of Law.
"People are upset about companies they don't have a lot of faith in getting even more power," he said.
Millennials, in particular, don't want the big internet providers to have more power to control content and maybe charge more for some of it, several sources said.
"I think it raises a big concern for a lot of consumers," said Sean Myers, chief operating officer for VETRO FiberMap, a mapping software product engineered in part by a team in downtown Buffalo.
Proof that people distrust their internet providers can be found in a survey of more than 2,000 Erie County residents conducted as part of a larger county study on local broadband access. Some 71 percent of the people who responded to the survey said they were not satisfied with their internet service.
Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that more people complained to Higgins' office last year about the loss of net neutrality than they did about any other issue - including health care.
"They see it as a continuing erosion of their rights as to the internet," said Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who nonetheless added: "The internet access issue is actually much more important."
The digital divide
Some Buffalo residents may have heard the word "broadband" for the first time in April of 2000, when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, then a U.S. Senate candidate, called for increased federal funding for that high-speed internet technology during a CNN town hall at the University at Buffalo.
Nearly 17 years after Clinton raised the issue, the New York State Broadband Office produced a map showing just how wired Erie County is – and isn't.
It showed a lingering digital divide. Parts of census tracts in South Buffalo, the far West Side and the East Side didn't have modern high-speed internet service. Similar broadband-free zones could be found in every other town in the county save for West Seneca and Orchard Park.
How could the digital divide linger for nearly two decades?
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz blames the internet service providers.
"It's been put in the hands of the private sector, and the private sector has, for whatever reason, elected to not expand into particular areas or not increase speeds in particular areas, putting those areas behind the eight ball," he said.
Companies will not even consider locating operations in those parts of the county without the most modern high-speed internet service, Poloncarz said.
In addition, the lack of a high-speed connection inconveniences residents of rural towns such as North Collins. There, Poloncarz said, residents frequently park in the town library parking lot at night to connect to the library's WiFi service, all because they don't have high-speed internet at home.
Similar broadband dead zones exist across the state, according to the study commissioned by the county, performed by ECC Technologies Inc. of Penfield.
Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican who represents the Southern Tier, can attest to that.
"In a rural district, there are areas that are just physically difficult to serve," Reed said.
Internet experts say, though, that particular areas tend to go without service largely for economic reasons. Like every business, internet service providers go where the customers are, so laying fiberoptic cable would fail the cost-benefit analysis in underpopulated areas.
Then there's the fact that the Buffalo region has only two main internet providers: Spectrum – formerly Time Warner Cable – and Verizon. What's more, Verizon offers its high-speed Fios service only in select suburbs, not the city or rural regions, leaving Spectrum with a virtual monopoly there.
Verizon spokesman Chris McCann said the company had no further plans to expand Fios service in upstate New York.
But Spectrum spokeswoman Lara Pritchard said that in the past two years, it has expanded its broadband service to 4,357 additional homes in Erie County, including those in parts of Buffalo, Williamsville, Angola, Eden and Grand Island.
Things aren't moving fast enough, though, for Poloncarz and Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke. The study that the county commissioned found it would cost $16.3 million for the county to build an "open access network" – that is, to build its own high-speed internet system reaching every corner of the county. Companies like Spectrum and Verizon would then pay the county for the use of those lines.
Poloncarz said he's still considering that plan and will propose it only if he's convinced it will work. Burke said it may well be worth a try.
"There are literally geographic dead zones, and it's unnecessary," said Burke, a Buffalo Democrat. "There's no excuse."
At least in Buffalo, people seem much more upset about the loss of net neutrality than they are about the digital divide.
From the start of 2017 through last Wednesday, Higgins' office had received 4,620 calls, letters and emails about net neutrality. That's 867 more than Higgins received about the Republican Party's attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, like Higgins a strong supporter of the Obama-era net neutrality rules, said the net neutrality issue especially resonates with younger Americans.
"Millennials were born into a world with a free and open internet," Schumer said. "It's as integral to their daily lives as a morning cup of coffee. So when the administration rips it from their hands, hands it over to the big ISPs on a silver platter, millennials will know that Republicans were responsible."
It's true that millennials were born into a world with a free and open internet. When they were born two decades ago or more, most people connected to the web through their telephones. In an era when service was so slow that no one could ever even dream of streaming a movie, no one imagined an internet service provider deciding to charge more for access to some types of content than others.
Yet that's exactly what net neutrality advocates fear could happen without the rules that Obama appointees to the Federal Communications Commission put in place three years ago.
Republican appointees to the FCC – led by Chairman Ajit Pai, who was born in Buffalo – voted to repeal those rules two months ago on free-market grounds.
To hear Pai tell it, the Obama-era rules were so complicated that the internet service providers had to spend so much time and money interpreting and following them that they cut back on investment.
"When there’s less investment, that means fewer next-generation networks are built," Pai said. "And that means more Americans are left on the wrong side of the digital divide."
Supporters of net neutrality, though, say that repealing those rules will merely create a new digital divide: one that's drawn on ideological or economic rather than geographic lines. Internet service providers will be able to control what consumers see on the internet and manipulate prices to favor the content that they produce.
"They will have the power to block websites, throttle services, and censor online content," said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "They will have the right to discriminate and favor the internet traffic of those companies with whom they have pay-for-play arrangements and the right to consign all others to a slow and bumpy road."
Corporate mergers in the telecom world only manage to stoke those fears, said Myers, of VETRO FiberMap, that mapping software development outfit in Buffalo. Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, already owns NBC Universal – and, without net neutrality, could favor NBC Universal programming over all others. Similarly, AT&T is bidding for Time Warner, meaning the owner of DirectTV could soon own – and favor – CNN and HBO.
"It makes people ask: how open is the internet?" Myers added.
Increasing cost of business
Hearing such concerns, people who favor the repeal of the Obama-era net neutrality rules say: calm down.
"The hysteria and narrative that this will kill the internet is blatantly false," said Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican. "Internet service providers have said they do not increase speeds for certain websites over others, and I have signed onto legislation that would make such a practice illegal."
In Collins' view, the net neutrality rules did nothing but increase the cost of business for the internet service providers. He thinks that with a lighter regulatory touch, ISPs may be more willing to expand service in his largely rural and suburban district – where, according to a study released last year, 65.3 percent of the territory was under-served and 3.3 percent didn't have any high-speed internet options.
Then again, if government built the internet infrastructure – as Poloncarz is considering – it could also guarantee net neutrality by requiring providers who use the government-built lines not restrict the content they provide.
Poloncarz acknowledged, though, that the internet service providers wouldn't exactly be thrilled with giving up power in that way.
"I'm sure they would be outraged and be furious," said Poloncarz, who added: "We've given the private sector the opportunity to show that it can deliver service economically and efficiently, and they haven't done that for the entire region."