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Another Voice: What the pandemic teaches us about net neutrality

Another Voice: What the pandemic teaches us about net neutrality

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By Martha Buyer

At its Oct. 27 meeting, the Federal Communications Commission plans to vote on whether to accept its motion on remand regarding the deceptively named Restoring Internet Freedom Order. As that day draws near, it’s important for consumers to recognize that this light-handed regulatory approach has not helped broadband deployment to rural and urban communities even as the internet, like it or not, has become a utility, regardless of its legal classification. 

If you need supporting evidence as to why the FCC’s “hands off” regulatory approach has failed, you need only read the well-documented report, “AT&T’s Digital Redlining: Leaving Communities Behind for Profit,” published by the Communications Workers of America and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. While the authors clearly had an agenda, the facts cited are irrefutable – and point to continued digital “redlining” by AT&T in the 22 states where it operates as the primary source of internet access.

Redlining is a phrase that came into fashion in the mid-1970s when banks, mortgage lenders and insurance companies drew maps with red lines highlighting neighborhoods that they deemed undesirable for lending purposes. To “redline” is to refuse to provide (a loan or insurance) to someone who lives in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk.

Digital redlining adds other complicating factors, including in rural communities where the cost to provide infrastructure to support broadband internet access can be difficult to justify strictly on financial grounds. The inequity of services offered between wealthy and less-solvent communities has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has forced many more people to need broadband access simply to do their jobs or participate in school.

According to the CWA/NDIA document, “across rural counties in AT&T’s footprint, only a fraction of households have access to fiber.” Even in those locations where communities have access to carrier-provided internet access, the speed is far below what most of us would tolerate, let alone meeting the FCC’s own standard about what qualifies as true broadband.

AT&T certainly isn’t the only villain here. It has the company of its biggest brethren – Verizon, Comcast, Spectrum, Charter Communications and Lumen Technologies (formerly CenturyLink) – in arguing that deploying the high-capacity cabling necessary to make strong broadband available to all is simply cost prohibitive. Its claims are not without merit, but they come no closer to solving the problem of the haves vs. the have-nots. 

Utility companies tried to make the same sort of high cost/shareholder value argument in the 1930s when federal mandates required the installation of electrical distribution systems in rural areas. Finally, the concept that light regulation gives providers incentives to deploy fiber to rural and struggling urban neighborhoods holds little water. Common practice just shows that this isn’t true.

If pandemic shutdowns have shown nothing else, it’s certainly that the internet is essential for maintaining connections – whether they’re work-related, academic or just plain social. I’ve seen this at my town library, where I’m a trustee. While we’ve had to limit access to computers for patron use to maintain social distance, the available devices are largely occupied during library hours. Our librarians have seen people using them to submit job applications and complete schoolwork, among other worthy tasks.

As the FCC prepares to congratulate itself on deregulation and dismantling the important net neutrality rules, please consider that those who are most in need of service continue to lag far, far behind. Pushed by the unforeseen demands of the pandemic, the internet has sealed its place among other essential utilities. To classify it any other way is simply misguided.

Martha Buyer is an East Aurora attorney who specializes in telecommunications law.

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