Net Neutrality

I’m looking for input on the issue of net neutrality. The Senate has formed a special committee on the issue and we may develop an approach to taking action on it. I generally favor net neutrality, but here are a few starting thoughts pointing to the complexity of the issue.

Net neutrality as to content is fundamental. As a free speech advocate, I’m absolutely committed to the principle that the internet should be open to all content providers and that there should be no discrimination based on content. The only exception to that idea should be lawful restrictions that the government might enact to protect public safety, consistent with established first amendment law.

Net neutrality as to file size and download speed is a different issue. This may be a corporate issue more than a people issue. Some corporate media providers are offering huge file downloads of television programs over the internet. If a particular corporate media entity offers huge, rapid file downloads that exceed the capacity of internet providers and so take bandwidth from other users, it might be reasonable to make that corporate media entity contribute more financially.

In practice, it may be impossible to separate content neutrality from size/speed neutrality, so I instinctively favor a clean and simple net neutrality principle, but I recognize that is a complex issue.

One thing is clear: It is a federal issue, not a state issue. Most internet traffic crosses state lines. State action will be largely pre-empted by federal regulation. As a work around to the pre-emption issue, I’ve recently received suggestions along the following lines:

As a constituent, I urge you to create the policy for our state government of contracting for internet services exclusively with companies that respect net neutrality. In addition, I encourage you to make our state government a much bigger internet provider by providing free, public internet service, including Wi-Fi in public places, and service to homes and businesses — and, again, working only with companies that follow net neutrality.

I’m reluctant to adopt these approaches. As to the first idea — creating a state policy of contracting with net neutral companies, I think it is probably legal, but I’m really not sure how it would work. We don’t buy all that much in the way of internet services compared to all the other private entities in the state. We wouldn’t move the market much. My other concern is that that we’d have to have a fight about whether various companies were net neutral and that might be less than obvious.

As to the second idea, I’m open to a state role for internet service provision, but we should focus on areas that are underserved today, especially rural areas. We have made a lot of progress on that over the last few years.

I’d very much welcome additional suggestions on how the state can help on this issue.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

7 replies on “Net Neutrality”

  1. Will,

    As far as contracting with net neutral companies, I suspect the state as a whole, including municipalities, contracts with more than you might think.

    The cities and towns do all have contracts with the cable companies (Comcast, RCN, etc) and likely the local phone supplier (Verizon/FIOS). To my knowledge, those cities and towns give permission to provide those companies to provide the services within the towns. Further, the state has contracts with ISPs to provide internet access to state offices (probably not that much money) as well as serve web content to residents.

    Typically the companies that host web sites are not the same as those that are the local ISPs, but there is some overlap.

    All that said, there’s another dimension to this problem that doesn’t get a lot of consideration. As I mentioned above, the cities and towns allow cable providers to put their lines on the poles and provide the services to residents. Most cities and towns have one cable TV provider only and the above situation is partly why. They also have one phone provider which is a legacy of Ma Bell, and then Nynex which became Verizon and the right of ways they have on the poles. Then, both of those services later used their lines to provide internet access as well.

    That said, the cities and towns do have the power to let in more providers. I mentioned RCN above and they do provide services in some towns. I believe Arlington is an example. So, the state could work with cities and towns to let RCN, or some other provider, expand as long as they provide net neutral services.

    I’ve probably missed certain aspects of the laws that govern this area and I know they’re complicated, but it’s something to consider. If nothing else, having more broadband options available in a given market will bring the prices down.

    If it helps, I know a fair bit about the commercial ISP market as I used to work in a related area. Feel free to contact me if I can be helpful.

    1. Thanks, Paul.

      I agree that the municipal and state sites add up to significant volume of traffic, but still probably insignificant in the bigger picture of what most people consume — most of what people look at is not government websites. Also government websites rarely provide video, etc., that chews up bandwith.

      I am quite sure that we could not deny cable companies access to polls, etc., based on our views of their neutrality policies — that franchising process is very tightly regulated by federal law.

      1. As far as denying access to poles, maybe I didn’t make the point well.

        Even if local governments didn’t predicate access to poles, there are right of way issues that, IMO, hurt competition. Even if the local government couldn’t dictate net neutrality as a term of access, more competitors available to the customer could certainly help that cause. For instance, RCN could come in and say “go with us because we’re net neutral”.

        Again, if nothing else, at least more choices available to the consumer would bring down prices.

        1. This is a fair point. Definitely, more competition is better. Best possible outcome is more wireless competition — technology may get us there.

          There is a real cost to having more wires on poles. Poles do need to be moved and replaced from time to time. And only the wire owner can move the wire. You have to get the power company, the phone company, the cable company to move their wires before you can touch the pole. Every new company that has wires on poles becomes a company that a construction project has to wait for. It is a frequent cause of project delay. So, limiting pole access to serious, viable providers makes some sense.

          1. Yes, I understand there’s some reasonable number for broadband providers, mostly due to poll access.

            However, I do think that number is certainly more than the one or two most people in the state have access to. Three available providers would be even better and many cities and towns with RCN have exactly that. I’ll hazard a guess that the maximum that’s practical isn’t much more than three.

            As far as wireless for broadband, just due to physics, I don’t see that ever being as fast and new services will always eat up available bandwidth.

  2. Yes, this is how it should be done. Great article and plan. Agree with Marti; abolish the bar and nullify the farce duties if self regulation.

    We have jurors that determine the fate of lives. This seems to be applauded by the lawyers from grand jury and on.
    Let’s implement “We The People” as to overseeing the attorneys and any thrir dutirs of all capacity. Any credible attorney should agree it is the right thing to do. Yes, we are not a democracy with a legal system that is non functioning given this conflict; and yes sadly we are caught in a legal third world and non compliant to our constitution that is for “We The People”. No more. Just no more. Where do I sign up!

  3. At the state level, my feeling is the best thing to be done is to encourage more municipal internet providers to be created. At a minimum do not allow any laws that prevent muni internet or to have the sort of situation we seem to have with muni electric where an incumbent is able to prevent creation of new ones perhaps (I don’t fully understand that situation but I’m sure you do). It seems to me that muni electric gives the best service and price, and I think that would be the case also with the utility we call the internet service provider.

    My ideal would be for there to be a basic level of service provided for free or at low cost provided by nonprofits or government entities. It’s a model we had in Nova Scotia back in the dial up days. There was a Freenet (Chebucto Community Net) you could use if you didn’t have money to spare or because you preferred them. In that case they were regulated, I think, not to be too fast, since I think they had some money from the province, which didn’t want them crowding out commercial ISPs. If we had some basic wireless service in most municapilites, something providing up to 1 Mbps, say, but that would be more trustworthy re. blocking of information and other corporate shenanigans, as well as setting the standard for minimal service, then at least people would have that to compare to. Those of us using the basic service could tell those using Comcast or one of the others in the oligopoly what they’re missing if things ever get so bad that they’re filtering content. Probably the best technology to encourage, if the state has a way to do that, would be the community mesh wireless networks we’ve seen some fledgling efforts with in Europe and a scattering of other municipalities. Something like Freifunk in Germany, say:

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