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Dec 04

Maine Compass: Open hearings needed before harmful ruling on net neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission is about to release a new order on net neutrality under the moniker “Restoring Internet Freedom.” In our opinion, this rule — which the FCC is poised to enact in less than two weeks — will ensure that the internet is controlled by a handful of large multinational companies that will be in a position to extort money from small businesses attempting to develop innovative new internet-based products and services.

The draft order will define internet access as an information service, rather than a telecommunications service. The change in definition would transfer the responsibility for regulating competitive practices on the internet from the FCC to the Federal Trade Commission. The problem is that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California has ruled that the FTC has no enforcement powers over broadband providers that also offer landline, mobile and other telecommunications services — which is nearly all of them. In other words, no one will have the ability to enforce fair practices on the internet.

Without a watchdog with enforcement authority over business practices, the nation’s largest internet service providers would be able to restrict trade and innovation on the internet in a variety of ways:

• Large ISPs could charge extra for bandwidth suitable for video streaming. Large providers like Google, Amazon and Netflix have already built their own content delivery networks to mitigate this risk, but new entrants wanting to bring better, more innovative and perhaps more cost-effective services to market would find themselves unable to provide a marketable service without paying extra – limiting consumer choice and increasing prices.

• Cable companies and phone companies would be able to limit the flow of voice-over-internet protocol traffic by other providers on their networks, such as Vonage, Magic Jack, 8×8 and our own company. This could severely hamper or even put these companies out of business.

• Internet service providers could block access to websites, gaming networks and content that haven’t paid for transport on the network, limiting consumer options for entertainment, shopping and education.

As a business executive in a telecommunications company, I don’t see the elimination of net-neutrality rules as “pro-business,” “pro-internet freedom” or even “pro-telecommunications.” Small to mid-sized businesses hoping to offer innovative, competitive services are at risk of being squeezed out of the marketplace by larger competitors.

Who does benefit? A handful of very large companies including Comcast, Charter, Verizon and Level 3 that would seek to leverage their market dominance and control traffic on the internet in the interest of limiting competition and increasing their own profits.

Given that this move is more “pro-trust” than “pro-business,” it’s also very discouraging that it has become a partisan issue in some quarters, with the Republicans on the FCC — Brendan Carr, Michael O’Rielly and Chairman Ajit Pai — backing the new rule and Democrats Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel dissenting. It’s a somewhat different scenario in the Maine congressional delegation. There, Republicans are divided: 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin supports the measure and Sen. Susan Collins is against it, as are Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and independent Sen. Angus King.

There appears to be disturbing evidence that hacking techniques and fraud are once again being used to stifle public opinion. During the public comment period for this rulemaking process last summer, nearly 22 million comments came in, but many, including the FCC’s Rosenworcel and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have pointed out that a lot of the comments in favor of the proposed rule changes are alleged to have come from bots and even dead people.

In addition, access to the comment site by legitimate citizens was blocked for a time in May by what the FCC claims was a denial-of-service attack; the Government Accountability Office will be looking into the attack at the request of two members of Congress. As a result of these irregularities, Rosenworcel has called for open, public hearings before the FCC brings this order to a vote Dec. 14, a call supported by Sen. King and others.

In the interest of transparency and integrity in the rulemaking process, Otelco supports Rosenworcel’s call for open hearings before the FCC’s upcoming vote, which will almost surely bring about the end of network neutrality. We encourage readers of this newspaper to reach out to the FCC and our congressional delegation to support an open process.

Trevor Jones is vice president of marketing, sales and customer service for Otelco, parent company of the New Gloucester-based telecommunications provider OTT Communications.


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