How neutral is the net?

From almost the very beginning of the internet there has been one debate that remains unsettled; how free should the internet be?

The term used for this debate is net neutrality. Net neutrality in its simplest form is the idea that the internet is a level playing field where ideas can be fostered, where the “little guy” can rise above because there is not as many hindrances like the expense of a building or storage space, more can be done with fewer employees. According to proponents of net neutrality the list of advantages to a truly free internet are extensive and exhaustive.

Opponents of net neutrality say capitalism should rein and they are not “opponents,” but rather they are realists. The basic idea of what they want to create is a two-tiered system for delivering content over the internet: a fast lane and a super fast lane. The fast lane in their system would be where most of the internet travels along at the “normal” speed. The super fast lane would be a premium service delivery lane where companies can pay to have their content delivered more quickly with better quality. In this model Bob’s Potato Blog would open on your computer, with medium quality images, in the normal amount of time you have become accustomed to. While Amazon (assuming they chose to pay the fee) would load much more quickly with better quality images.

The companies pushing for the right to create the two-tiered system (Comcast, Time Warner Cable and other internet giants) argue they own the infrastructure, they incur the expense of maintaining that infrastructure and therefore should be allowed to use it however they like to make as much money as they can from their investment.

Fans of net neutrality argue that cost would be passed onto consumers indiscriminately. In their view the prices of items on Amazon or Etsy would go up, across the board, regardless of how often a user goes to a premium site. So if I spend most of my time reading Bob’s Potato Blog I shouldn’t have to pay increased prices on the one item per year I buy from Amazon. They argue this will stop me from using the internet because I will be upset because I know Bob’s Potato Blog could load faster and I will stop buying that one item per year from Amazon because I know I am paying more.

So far it sounds like I am not a fan of net neutrality. Obviously if I like Bob’s Potato Blog enough I will put up with the inconvenience of the website taking eight seconds to load versus three seconds.

But this column is really about why all rural states should support net neutrality.

It would be nice to think that there is this utopian place in the digital ether that is unaffected by politics and crass commercialism. Proponents of net neutrality have portrayed themselves as The Lorax of this cyber-commune and really they are just that type of protector, which is good.

However, there is also a stark reality that politics and crass-commercialism are already at play. These companies looking to create a pay-to-play system of internet content delivery are also the ones that have ignored rural America.

These larger companies are constantly making compromise agreements with the FCC. That is how business is done with the FCC. They will give a radio company a license to broadcast on a specific frequency if that radio company agrees to let the Emergency Alert System take over at any time. Same with internet providers; flip over you wireless router sometime if it sends a signal through the air the FCC has to approve that device. Same goes for that new Blu-Ray player or the baby monitor in your nursery. Quick approval of cheaper better technology in exchange for nationwide internet coverage is the trade. Unfortunately it is a wink-and-nod agreement.

As many of you may have realized, the internet service in rural Idaho is not top of the line. It is not bad, but not great either. This is because the fewer the customers over a larger distance mean smaller profits. Set up a broadband tower in Los Angeles and you can serve several hundred customers. Set up the same tower in Arbon Valley and serve seven customers. Keep in mind the FCC has held up their end to approve technologies quickly.

The USDA realized that rural areas were being under served and in 2009 started BIP the Broadband Incentive Program. This program gave over $3.5 billion dollars to companies that would increase internet coverage to rural areas.

These companies failed completely at serving rural citizens by chasing the big pay day in the city that the government had to come up with its own program. Now these same companies are asking to make even more money on those city customers, but what about places like Idaho, North and South Dakota, Iowa and Wyoming that are already behind the times? What proof do we have that these companies will now, all of the sudden, sit up and take notice?

Keeping the internet as a level playing field won’t close the technology gap in internet service between rural and urban providers, but it will prevent that divide from becoming larger.

This is not the most exciting topic, but it is a “contact your congressman” moment.

Mike Crapo: http://www.crapo.senate.gov/contact/email.cfm.

Jim Risch: http://www.risch.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email.

Raul Labrador: https://labradorforms.house.gov/email-me.

Mike Simpson: http://simpson.house.gov/contact/.

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