For people who think Internet-related commerce and entrepreneurship could play a big role in Kentucky’s economic future, a new federal court ruling is good news.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission can regulate Internet service providers as “common carriers” similar to telephone companies.
That means the FCC can enforce rules it approved last year requiring ISPs to treat all Internet traffic equally. It would prevent them from engaging in discriminatory or anti-competitive behavior, such as creating paid “fast lanes” for favored customers or slowing or blocking service for others.
Regulating ISPs like utilities makes sense. High-speed Internet has become an essential service, and in many places, such as parts of rural and small-town Kentucky, ISPs have virtual monopolies.
Also, as telecommunications companies have grown to become content providers as well as transmitters, it would be foolish to think they wouldn’t try to favor their own content or those of companies willing to pay for “premium” service.
The ruling, which comes after a decade of litigation over so-called net neutrality, isn’t the final word. AT&T has said it will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are going to bat for the big telecoms, which have invested millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions, proposing cuts to the FCC’s budget and restrictions on enforcing net neutrality.
With President Obama’s backing, the FCC has taken a strong stand in favor of an “open Internet” where users “can go where they want, when they want” for lawful services without restrictions from ISPs. That also means innovators can develop new Internet products and services “without asking permission” of ISPs.
The Internet, originally created with taxpayer money, should be a public highway, not a corporate toll road. That is especially important in places like Kentucky. While virtually all Kentuckians have access to some kind of Internet service, either wired or wireless, it is often slow, unreliable and expensive.
About 86 percent of Kentuckians have access to wired service with a speed of at least 10 mbps, according to Broadbandnow.com, a website that tracks providers nationwide. But only 65 percent of Kentuckians have access to wired service at the commercially competitive standard of 25 mbps, ranking the state 42nd out of 50. And about 15 percent of Kentuckians have access to fewer than two wired providers.
The telecoms and existing ISPs say they invest millions of dollars each year in improving Kentucky’s broadband infrastructure. And there have been several coordinated initiatives, both public and private, for improving broadband access.
The most ambitious of those initiatives is the public-private partnership called KentuckyWired, created by the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region project started by former Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Somerset Republican. Plans call for KentuckyWired to build a 3,200 mile “middle mile” network of high-speed Internet to all 120 counties using mostly private capital.
But KentuckyWired faces opposition from the telecom companies, other ISPs and anti-government activist groups, which are spending big money to block publicly owned broadband around the country. It will be interesting to see how Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration proceeds with this important project.
The telecoms and activist groups try to portray net neutrality as some kind of government takeover of the Internet. In reality, though, it is about encouraging market competition, preserving a level playing field and protecting the public interest rather than the profits of existing providers.
In economic terms, high-speed Internet will be to the future what good highways, railroads and canals were to the past. The best hope for economic development in many parts of Kentucky is attracting companies and encouraging entrepreneurs, and that requires modern infrastructure.
The Internet must be developed in ways that benefit the public and not just big telecommunications companies. That’s why net neutrality is essential.