Senate Net Neutrality Debate Misses Bigger Issue for Rural Communities

Once again, net neutrality is the hot topic in Congress as the Senate begins debate on nullifying a 2017 Federal Communications Commission vote to change broadband service regulations.

For more than a decade, this issue has been lobbied, litigated and shouted over. During that time, there have been at least half a dozen policy changes at the FCC — an average of about one every two years. Meanwhile, the FCC and multiple courts have engaged in a non-stop legal battle over the commission’s authority, including a multi-year litigation over how to define and properly apply the word “ancillary.”

Unfortunately, this decade-long debate has obscured a far more important broadband issue: the need to promote high-speed deployment, especially in rural communities. The National Grange has focused Congress on this problem for years. As a member of the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, I have spent countless hours documenting economic and social problems caused by lack of rural broadband.

Three facts about broadband should tower over the Senate debate, and none involve regulating net neutrality:

1. Almost 2 in 5 rural Americans currently lack high-speed internet service.
2. A quarter of America’s K–12 students have inadequate internet connectivity at school.
3. The FCC’s 2015 vote to regulate broadband did nothing to protect our personal, private online information, and scandals like the recent ones at Facebook were rampant while the rules were active.

The Senate could accomplish more for the country by focusing on policies that promote broadband deployment and give us greater legal rights over our online lives. The debate over regulating online neutrality does nothing to help with either problem. In fact, on broadband access, evidence shows that tighter federal neutrality regulation, like the rules the U.S. had from 2015 to 2017, slows the growth of broadband.

After the FCC approved broad neutrality regulations over the internet in 2015, there was an almost immediate decline in investment, which continued for two years. Investment began improving only when the Commission returned to a more reasonable approach. This is the only non-recession decline in broadband investment the United States has ever seen.

For rural communities, the harm was especially significant. Within three months of that vote, rural broadband providers were slowing deployment because of rising costs. By 2016, those rules had cost rural communities $2.4 billion in annual broadband investment.

That 2015 vote also hurt internet users by shredding federal privacy protections. Sure enough, the past three years have seen a continuous series of scandals involving many of the internet’s biggest websites: Facebook, Instagram, Google and others.

With broadband investment rebounding, the current rules should be allowed to continue until there is a need to change them. Consumers already have substantial legal protections to do what they want online without interference.

But Congress should focus more on improving online privacy laws to encourage broadband use. The New York Times recently reported a new Facebook scandal involving data on 368 million users. This is in addition to the previous Facebook scandal involving the personal data of 87 million users shared with a now-bankrupt consulting firm who helped the Trump campaign.

Passing a federal law that establishes a single set of privacy rules across the Internet and gives the public greater power over their own data would be an important step forward. It would make the web safer—and fairer for consumers.

The net neutrality issue has not always been partisan. In 2006, in one of the first votes on this issue, Congress voted 269 to 152 to reject heavy regulation in favor of a “light touch” approach. 58 Democrats, including many well-known progressives, supported the light touch.

The Senate should skip the debate on this incomplete, harmful regulation. Instead, the focus should be on more important issues: promoting affordable broadband access, reasonable online privacy protections and consumer rights across the internet ecosystem.

Betsy Huber is president of the National Grange and a member of the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee.

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