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Editorial: Restore net neutrality

Two issues converging on the internet and carrying great influence deserve close attention: net neutrality and expandding high-speed access into underserved areas.

Net neutrality is an Obama-era policy and the Trump administration is not fond of Obama-era policies.

Net neutrality forced internet service providers to create an even playing field when it comes to delivering content. Every “car” most move at the same speed or, in this case, same download rate.
Without that equal treatment, certain websites might be slowed or blocked. For example, the internet provider Comcast owns NBC Universal. Would it give preference to NBC content over rival sites?

It’s a risk that requires attention. Internet consumers already can pay for higher download speeds. No one should have a problem with that; it affects all content. But when providers can play favorites, trouble awaits.

Net neutrality has sparked debate for years. Arguments on the left insist that Internet service providers must treat all traffic equally, almost as a public utility: electricity and natural gas are delivered at consistent rates, regardless of the producer. Why not the internet? It’s a critical resource for success in modern life.

Arguments on the right, meanwhile, declare that an unregulated internet will not bring the end to free speech, or access. Led by Chairman Ajit Pai, Republican appointees to the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal those Obama-era net neutrality rules two months ago “on free market grounds.” That argument would have more merit if Internet service were truly competitive, allowing consumers to change providers whose policies they find unsatisfactory. But for the most part, it’s not.

It’s a hot subject. Rep. Brian Higgins’ office says it has received 4,620 calls, letters and emails about net neutrality from the start of 2017 through early January. That figure is 867 more than Higgins received about the Republican Party’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, according to a report by News Washington bureau chief Jerry Zremski.

New York Attorney Gen. Eric T. Schneiderman is leading a coalition of 22 attorneys general in filing a multistate lawsuit to block the FCC’s attempts at rolling back net neutrality. Let’s hope they succeed.

Meanwhile, another related issue demands attention, affecting Buffalo and rural parts of Erie County and the nation. It is the “third-world” internet service Zremski wrote about, in which content is delivered at sluggish speeds, creating a digital divide.

The New York State Broadband Office produced a map showing parts of census tracts in South Buffalo, the far West Side and the East Side without modern high-speed internet service. Several other zones also lack broadband, including areas in most towns other than West Seneca and Orchard Park.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz is considering a county-commissioned study that cited a cost of $16.3 million price tag to build an “open access network.” Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke said it might be worth trying.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, has introduced a bill that would pinpoint the rural areas in most need of improved broadband. The bill is part of a package of measures offered by House Energy and Commerce Committee members.

Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, is also on the case. The caucus released a report suggesting a range of federal efforts to expand high-speed internet.
There could be any number of responses to this issue, but it is at least heartening that, across the political spectrum, the matter’s importance is understood. As technology changes, the delivery of internet service is likely to evolve. That may solve some of these problems, but for now, the division puts too many Americans at a profound disadvantage.

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