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Net neutrality is a hot-button topic pending a vote by the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday, Dec. 14, that will determine how the federal government interacts with the companies that provide internet to citizens and businesses.
The argument centers on whether the FCC should remove existing regulations that apply to internet service providers, or ISPs. Critics say removing these regulations, put in place in 2015, would end net neutrality, the idea that ISPs should treat all internet data the same regardless of kind, source or destination.
In many spaces, the discussion centers on big companies and big cities that may sway the FCC members to vote one way or another. But players in Carroll have weighed in with strong opinions.
Two ISPs who base their businesses in Carroll, and serve largely rural customers, disagree on the shape regulation or deregulation should take.
Freedom Broadband, a Westminster-based company that serves Central Maryland, questions whether the current FCC ability to regulate privately owned companies as utilities is an overstep.
“Do you want the actual network infrastructure to be owned by government rather than private businesses?” President Theresa Bethune asked. “Do you want the added costs that government regulations bring?”
While the current regulations hold ISPs responsible for content and customer experience, she said, they do not put equal responsibilities on content providers, who have only grown in influence since the ruling was passed.
“The internet is not a single place — it is a network of networks,” she said. “The 2015 ruling requires an ISP to treat all content equally, but we’re still required to address illegal access to content. This requires more monitoring and management of the network by the ISP [and less privacy].”
Kevin Brown, CEO of Quantum Internet and Telephone, said the decision to deregulate could be beneficial to some small providers. Advocates for maintaining regulation of ISPs are concerned that deregulation will allow ISPs to discriminate against certain content with extra costs or slower speeds.
Brown said Quantum will not engage in those practices. “We’d be shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said.
If deregulation goes forward and bigger companies like Comcast and Verizon begin charging customers extra to view certain content, Brown believes this may push customer to seek out smaller ISPs.
“lf [consumers] have an option, they’re going to switch,” Brown said. “In a good part of Carroll County there are competitive choices. Some people will be impacted, some won’t.”
The repeal of net neutrality might hurt small providers, he said, if bigger companies charge content providers not to restrict access to their content and then are able to offer lower prices for internet.
However, he said, “I think they’re just going to pocket the money. … They’re not going to be willing to lower prices if people are still paying them.”
The city is engaged in an ongoing development project to build fiber optic internet infrastructure in the city. An agreement with ISP Ting allows the provider to lease the city’s fiber to provide service.
“I think we’re in a better position to deal with this than other municipalities,” said council President Robert Wack.
“This really is a challenging time for the principles of an open internet,” said Monica Webb, director of market development and government affairs for the company. “Whether or not the FCC votes to deregulate will not impact any Ting internet customers, as we will uphold the principles of net neutrality, whether we are required to or not. It’s simply the right thing to do.”
Westminster Mayor Joe Dominick said he believes Ting is a responsible provider, but that deregulation will affect everyone regardless of their ISP.
In July of this year, Dominick joined 50 mayors nationwide who signed a letter addressed to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai advocating for five “principles of free and open internet service.” He said the gathering of leaders crossed party lines and included Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
“Net neutrality is extremely popular,” he said. “[If it is overturned,] we’re going to see how money and the lack of restriction on companies spending money on political campaigns has completely handed our federal government over.”
All sides agree that the FCC decision will have widespread and complex effects on the country.
Bethune said the current regulation, passed in 2015, “is far more complex than most realize, and brought with it unintended consequences, particularly for small ISPs and rural providers,” she said.