A group of Vermonters whose lives and work depend on 21st century innovation are rallying behind a 19th century model. Sort of.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler recently announced that the FCC was backing so-called “net neutrality” by recommending that Internet service providers be regulated as a public utility, somewhat like the legacy telephone companies.
His decision to include large ISPs, such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, under Title II of the Telecommunications Act has been celebrated as a victory for those who favor equal access to the Internet and oppose a “fast lane” for premium subscribers.
Under the FCC proposal, providers would not be able to charge more for a second, faster tier of Internet service; would not be allowed to throttle, or slow down, Internet speeds; or block access to any legal website. Unlike its role with telephone service providers, the FCC would not regulate customer rates charged by ISPs. Wheeler’s plan would also apply to wireless providers for the first time.
The FCC decision to regulate Internet providers as telecommunications companies rather than information suppliers is bound to end up in court and will face ideological obstacles in Congress as well, experts say. AT&T and Verizon have already indicated they will sue, according to news reports.
“There will be a battle between a lot of the corporate businesses and a pushback from big Internet providers about any kind of role for FCC,” Rep. Peter Welch said Friday. “Some see Title II as excessive regulation, I see it as a guarantee of access and protection.”
In reaction to the FCC decision, Welch, D-Vt., gathered a panel of technology leaders in Montpelier to discuss the importance of fair and equal access to the Internet.
Wheeler’s position was good news to the group, who believe innovation and creativity would have been stifled if Internet providers were allowed to give preference to certain customers, advertisers or content producers.
Creating a premium Internet service would cause companies that rely on the Web to pay more and could stymie small startups that might be unable to compete in sectors where the large ISPs have essentially picked technology winners.
For example, if a provider were to offer a certain music streaming platform free (i.e. not counted against a user’s data limit) then there might be less incentive for developers to explore new applications.
“It’s about fairness,” said Lisa Groeneveld, COO and co-founder of Logic Supply, a South Burlington company that builds customized computer hardware.
“Our company’s motto is open, fair, independent and innovative,” Groeneveld said. “If you allow someone to pay for better access over the Internet, you’re basically allowing someone to go 65 in a 55 mph zone. You deny access to services that people need to grow their business.”
Welch’s roundtable discussion was held at Montpelier’s Local 64, a co-working office space, and included participants from Laboratory B, Designbook, Ringmaster Software and others.
Many said the Internet has become a necessary utility and a basic human and economic need. They also questioned what their businesses would actually get if they paid for two-tiered service.
“If I have a telephone number and Comcast has a telephone number and Comcast’s phone rings every time someone calls and mine rings one out of five calls, that’s a problem,” said Jeme Brelin of the tech incubator Burlington Generator.
The small business owners, designers and gamers said their success and innovation depends on a level playing field.
“My concern is competitive,” Groenveld said. If I can’t reach my customer in the way that they need me to reach them, and I have to pay to do it, I will pay to do it. That just means I will have less revenue to share with my employees and partners.”