Opinion

The FCC’s Step Forward for Rural Internet Service

When the Federal Communications Commission made its decision two years ago to regulate the internet as a public utility, the harm came to small towns and rural communities almost immediately. Internet companies nationwide slowed or stopped plans to invest in improving and expanding their services due to new legal and compliance costs.

For rural America, those regulations presented yet another hurdle to gaining access to modern broadband services that urban areas have enjoyed for years.

Last week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his plan to correct that mistake. His plan stresses deployment of new broadband service by doing away with the outdated rules adopted two years ago – rules that were adapted from Title II of a 1934 law that Congress and Franklin Roosevelt’s administration authored to help govern the rotary phone system.

Pai’s plan has sparked an unusual amount of handwringing by some people with misguided ideas on how to ensure the internet economy continues to thrive.

For example, in The New York Times last week, law professor Tim Wu called Pai’s announcement “senseless government action.” But it’s not senseless when rural businesses and internet users are suffering from the rules implemented two years ago.

Just last week, almost two dozen small internet providers, primarily from rural communities, spoke out on the harm these rules have done to internet service in small towns and rural communities. The places in which they’re based include Rhinelander, Wis.; Gaylord, Minn.; West Bend, Iowa; and Chaparral, N.M.

“For our customers, the rules have been all cost and no benefit,” they wrote. “Each of us has spent substantial time and resources, including for advice from outside consultants and lawyers, to ensure that our practices are consistent with the rules.”

Most important, these internet providers explained, “each of us has slowed, if not halted, the development and deployment of innovative new offerings.”

Wu and anyone else claiming not to see any problems with regulating the internet like a public utility must accept that for many communities, the result has been higher costs, slower access and poorer service.

But what makes his comments and others like them so much worse is that the harm from the FCC’s action has been apparent for years. A rural internet provider in Southwest Virginia reported within three months of the new rules that it had to stop investing in new rural broadband service because of the FCC’s decision and the new legal fees.

An internet provider called Aristotle that serves rural Arkansas had plans to triple its customer base by deploying a fixed wireless network across a three-county area. But as its president told Congress a year ago, the company was forced to slash that plan because of the risks of the FCC’s Title II rules and the expense of complying with those rules.

The internet is continuously evolving and becoming more and more essential for people to thrive in today’s modern world. Applying outdated Title II regulations to internet providers will bog down the process of bringing new technologies to consumers, especially in rural and underserved areas. Without access to the same high quality broadband services that are available to urban residents, our rural communities will be at a disadvantage for economic growth, jobs and education.

Pai deserves credit for moving quickly to roll back the FCC’s Title II mistake that has inflicted so much harm on rural communities.

 

Betsy Huber is president of National Grange.

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