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Federal rules get in way of internet access

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My friend, Christie-Lee McNally of Scarborough, Maine, is executive director of the non-profit Free Our Internet. I asked Christie-Lee to help me understand the important issue of Net Neutrality which President Obama put in place (2015) and President Trump wants reversed.

For rural Mainers, especially small- and micro-business owners who want access to internet service capable of handling their online business, how is Net Neutrality affecting them?

In the 1990s and early 2000s, said Christie-Lee, internet service providers (ISPs) were popping up nationwide, including rural America. If an ISP wanted to expand business, reaching more customers, they had to consider local and State ordinances.

I remember accessing the internet for the first time from my rural Maine home using a dial-up 14K modem. Eventually my local ISP was offering faster, direct connectivity with a broadband plan costing me a little more, but worth it.

As I heard it from politicians and others in the early- to mid-’90s, Maine was in good shape to launch broadband internet networks. Our Statewide telephone lines were fiber optic, a byproduct of telecommunication links with Maine’s several military bases.

Maine does have a strong internet “skeleton” — but broadband access in rural Maine is still lacking. That’s an issue raised in this column previously by several people. So what happened to the internet promises we heard?

Christie-Lee, among others, points to the 2015 Title II federal regulation, known as “Net Neutrality.” On a 3-to-2 vote, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Obama Administration began regulating the internet as a public utility. “Just like water, electricity, and gas,” said McNally.

ISPs wanting to expand anywhere, including rural Maine, now had to get approval from the FCC. ISPs must submit to the FCC “a full plan, the contractors they’re going to use, their rate structure, environmental impact studies, all of that. Which puts that extra expense and time on the ISP. Plus,” said McNally,” the FCC also started regulating ISPs rates.”

Many ISPs decided – especially in rural areas – expanding was no longer worthwhile.

The federal Net Neutrality regulation deals with broadband internet access — which is finite. Under a market-based business model, customers wanting more of the broadband dedicated to them, would pay a premium amount. That’s not happening under Net Neutrality regulations.

McNally said, “Basically, you’re taking away consumers’ rights to have the $9.99 plan. They just want to check their email and look things up periodically. They have limited funds and don’t want to pay $50 a month for internet access. In southern Maine that’s the cheapest package.”

There’s also the flip side, where fast, reliable internet access is a life-or-death matter. “Hospitals do live surgery where they need uninterrupted, fast internet service. Right now it’s not available to them,” said McNally.

For me, one of the great tragedies of Net Neutrality regulations is the end, or suppression of internet innovation. Think of where the internet was 20 years ago compared with today. Net Neutralists seeking to protect broadband access may well be spending their energies on a technology that will be obsolete in another ten years.

On May 23, 2017 the current FCC voted to propose reversing Net Neutrality and “Restoring Internet Freedom.” The FCC is now encouraging public comments on their proposal. Should the restoration succeed – then what?

“It would allow ISPs to start rebooting what they were doing before, expanding broadband out into the rural areas. Which I think everybody is ready to do,” said McNally. “They just don’t want to start anything if they think they’re going to be over-regulated.”
 You can weigh in on the FCC.gov web site (http://fcc.us/2r5wwat) or on the Free Our Internet site http://freeourinternet.org/take-action/

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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