End of ‘net neu­tral­ity,’ bad ser­vice rile many

In­ter­net speed, ac­cess spur com­plaints across re­gion

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Jerry Zrem­ski

WASH­ING­TON – Peo­ple in­un­dated the of­fices of Rep. Brian Hig­gins in re­cent weeks with com­plaints about a first-world prob­lem: a fed­eral agency’s de­ci­sion to end “net neu­tral­ity,” an Obama-era pol­icy aimed at forc­ing in­ter­net ser­vice providers to al­low the same ac­cess to all web­sites with­out play­ing fa­vorites.

Mean­time, in poorer parts of Buf­falo and ru­ral swaths of Erie County and the na­tion at large, res­i­dents still cope with third-world in­ter­net ser­vice that’s far slower than what the mod­ern econ­omy de­mands.

Those two is­sues may seem to be un­re­lated, but at least one fact ap­pears to tie them to­gether.

“I think the thing that gets peo­ple up­set about los­ing net neu­tral­ity is that there’s a dis­trust of the providers” – the com­pa­nies that of­fer in­ter­net ser­vice, said Mark Bartholomew, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor and com­mu­ni­ca­tions law ex­pert at the Univer­sity at Buf­falo School of Law.

“Peo­ple are up­set about com­pa­nies they don’t have a lot of faith in get­ting even more power,” he said.

Mil­len­ni­als, in par­tic­u­lar, don’t want the big in­ter­net providers to have more power to con­trol con­tent and maybe charge more for some of it, sev­eral sources said.

“I think it raises a big con­cern for a lot of con­sumers,” said Sean My­ers, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer for VETRO FiberMap, a map­ping soft­ware prod­uct en­gi­neered in part by a team in down­town Buf­falo.

Proof that peo­ple dis­trust their in­ter­net providers can be found in a sur­vey of more than 2,000 Erie County res­i­dents con­ducted as part of a larger county study on lo­cal broad­band ac­cess. Some 71 per­cent of the peo­ple who re­sponded to the sur­vey said they were not sat­is­fied with their in­ter­net ser­vice.

Per­haps it should be no sur­prise, then, that more peo­ple com­plained to Hig­gins’ of­fice last year about the loss of net neu­tral­ity

than they did about any other is­sue – in­clud­ing health care.

“They see it as a con­tin­u­ing ero­sion of their rights as to the in­ter­net,” said Hig­gins, a Buf­falo Demo­crat who nonethe­less added: “The in­ter­net ac­cess is­sue is ac­tu­ally much more im­por­tant.”

The dig­i­tal di­vide

Some Buf­falo res­i­dents may have heard the word “broad­band” for the first time in April of 2000, when Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, then a U.S. Se­nate can­di­date, called for in­creased fed­eral fund­ing for that high-speed in­ter­net technology dur­ing a CNN town hall at the Univer­sity at Buf­falo.

Nearly 17 years af­ter Clin­ton raised the is­sue, the New York State Broad­band Of­fice pro­duced a map show­ing just how wired Erie County is – and isn’t.

It showed a lin­ger­ing dig­i­tal di­vide. Parts of cen­sus tracts in South Buf­falo, the far West Side and the East Side didn’t have mod­ern high-speed in­ter­net ser­vice. Sim­i­lar broad­band-free zones could be found in ev­ery other town in the county save for West Seneca and Or­chard Park.

How could the dig­i­tal di­vide linger for nearly two decades?

Erie County Ex­ec­u­tive Mark C. Polon­carz blames the in­ter­net ser­vice providers.

“It’s been put in the hands of the pri­vate sec­tor, and the pri­vate sec­tor has, for what­ever rea­son, elected to not ex­pand into par­tic­u­lar ar­eas or not in­crease speeds in par­tic­u­lar ar­eas, putting those ar­eas be­hind the eight ball,” he said.

Com­pa­nies will not even con­sider lo­cat­ing op­er­a­tions in those parts of the county with­out the most mod­ern high-speed in­ter­net ser­vice, Polon­carz said.

In ad­di­tion, the lack of a high-speed con­nec­tion in­con­ve­niences res­i­dents of ru­ral towns such as North Collins. There, Polon­carz said, res­i­dents fre­quently park in the town li­brary park­ing lot at night to con­nect to the li­brary’s WiFi ser­vice, all be­cause they don’t have high-speed in­ter­net at home.

Sim­i­lar broad­band dead zones ex­ist across the state, ac­cord­ing to the study com­mis­sioned by the county, per­formed by ECC Tech­nolo­gies of Pen­field.

Rep. Tom Reed, a Corn­ing Repub­li­can who rep­re­sents the South­ern Tier, can at­test to that.

“In a ru­ral dis­trict, there are ar­eas that are just phys­i­cally dif­fi­cult to serve,” Reed said.

In­ter­net ex­perts say, though, that par­tic­u­lar ar­eas tend to go with­out ser­vice largely for eco­nomic rea­sons. Like ev­ery busi­ness, in­ter­net ser­vice providers go where the cus­tomers are, so lay­ing fiberop­tic ca­ble would fail the cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis in un­der­pop­u­lated ar­eas.

Then there’s the fact that the Buf­falo re­gion has only two main in­ter­net providers: Spec­trum – for­merly Time Warner Ca­ble – and Ver­i­zon. What’s more, Ver­i­zon of­fers its high-speed Fios ser­vice only in se­lect sub­urbs, not the city or ru­ral re­gions, leav­ing Spec­trum with a vir­tual mo­nop­oly there.

Ver­i­zon spokesman Chris McCann said the com­pany had no fur­ther plans to ex­pand Fios ser­vice in up­state New York.

But Spec­trum spokes­woman Lara Pritchard said that in the past two years, it has ex­panded its broad­band ser­vice to 4,357 ad­di­tional homes in Erie County, in­clud­ing those in parts of Buf­falo, Williamsville, An­gola, Eden and Grand Is­land.

Things aren’t mov­ing fast enough, though, for Polon­carz and Erie County Leg­is­la­tor Pa­trick Burke. The study that the county com­mis­sioned found it would cost $16.3 mil­lion for the county to build an “open ac­cess net­work” – that is, to build its own high-speed in­ter­net sys­tem reach­ing ev­ery cor­ner of the county. Com­pa­nies like Spec­trum and Ver­i­zon would then pay the county for the use of those lines.

Polon­carz said he’s still con­sid­er­ing that plan and will pro­pose it only if he’s con­vinced it will work. Burke said it may well be worth a try.

“There are lit­er­ally geo­graphic dead zones, and it’s un­nec­es­sary,” said Burke, a Buf­falo Demo­crat. “There’s no ex­cuse.”

Net neu­tral­ity

At least in Buf­falo, peo­ple seem much more up­set about the loss of net neu­tral­ity than they are about the dig­i­tal di­vide.

From the start of 2017 through last Wed­nes­day, Hig­gins’ of­fice had re­ceived 4,620 calls, let­ters and emails about net neu­tral­ity. That’s 867 more than Hig­gins re­ceived about the Repub­li­can Party’s at­tempted re­peal of the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer, like Hig­gins a strong sup­porter of the Obama-era net neu­tral­ity rules, said the net neu­tral­ity is­sue es­pe­cially res­onates with younger Amer­i­cans.

“Mil­len­ni­als were born into a world with a free and open in­ter­net,” Schumer said. “It’s as in­te­gral to their daily lives as a morn­ing cup of cof­fee. So when the ad­min­is­tra­tion rips it from their hands, hands it over to the big ISPs on a sil­ver plat­ter, mil­len­ni­als will know that Repub­li­cans were re­spon­si­ble.”

It’s true that mil­len­ni­als were born into a world with a free and open in­ter­net. When they were born two decades ago or more, most peo­ple connected to the web through their tele­phones. In an era when ser­vice was so slow that no one could ever even dream of stream­ing a movie, no one imag­ined an in­ter­net ser­vice provider de­cid­ing to charge more for ac­cess to some types of con­tent than oth­ers.

Yet that’s ex­actly what net neu­tral­ity ad­vo­cates fear could hap­pen with­out the rules that Obama ap­pointees to the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion put in place three years ago.

Repub­li­can ap­pointees to the FCC – led by Chair­man Ajit Pai, – voted to re­peal those rules two months ago on free-mar­ket grounds.

To hear Pai tell it, the Obama-era rules were so com­pli­cated that the in­ter­net ser­vice providers had to spend so much time and money in­ter­pret­ing and fol­low­ing them that they cut back on in­vest­ment.

“When there’s less in­vest­ment, that means fewer next-gen­er­a­tion net­works are built,” Pai said. “And that means more Amer­i­cans are left on the wrong side of the dig­i­tal di­vide.”

Sup­port­ers of net neu­tral­ity, though, say that re­peal­ing those rules will merely cre­ate a new dig­i­tal di­vide: one that’s drawn on ide­o­log­i­cal or eco­nomic rather than geo­graphic lines. In­ter­net ser­vice providers will be able to con­trol what con­sumers see on the in­ter­net and ma­nip­u­late prices to fa­vor the con­tent that they pro­duce.

“They will have the power to block web­sites, throt­tle ser­vices, and cen­sor on­line con­tent,” said FCC Com­mis­sioner Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel. “They will have the right to dis­crim­i­nate and fa­vor the in­ter­net traf­fic of those com­pa­nies with whom they have pay-for-play ar­range­ments and the right to con­sign all oth­ers to a slow and bumpy road.”

Cor­po­rate merg­ers in the tele­com world only man­age to stoke those fears, said My­ers, of VETRO FiberMap, that map­ping soft­ware de­vel­op­ment out­fit in Buf­falo. Com­cast, the na­tion’s largest ca­ble com­pany, al­ready owns NBC Uni­ver­sal – and, with­out net neu­tral­ity, could fa­vor NBC Uni­ver­sal pro­gram­ming over all oth­ers. Sim­i­larly, AT&T is bid­ding for Time Warner, mean­ing the owner of Direc­tTV could soon own – and fa­vor – CNN and HBO.

“It makes peo­ple ask: how open is the in­ter­net?” My­ers added.

In­creas­ing cost of busi­ness

Hear­ing such con­cerns, peo­ple who fa­vor the re­peal of the Obama-era net neu­tral­ity rules say: calm down.

“The hys­te­ria and nar­ra­tive that this will kill the in­ter­net is bla­tantly false,” said Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Repub­li­can. “In­ter­net ser­vice providers have said they do not in­crease speeds for cer­tain web­sites over oth­ers, and I have signed onto leg­is­la­tion that would make such a prac­tice il­le­gal.”

In Collins’ view, the net neu­tral­ity rules did noth­ing but in­crease the cost of busi­ness for the in­ter­net ser­vice providers. He thinks that with a lighter reg­u­la­tory touch, ISPs may be more will­ing to ex­pand ser­vice in his largely ru­ral and sub­ur­ban dis­trict – where, ac­cord­ing to a study re­leased last year, 65.3 per­cent of the ter­ri­tory was un­der­served and 3.3 per­cent didn’t have any high-speed in­ter­net op­tions.

Then again, if govern­ment built the in­ter­net in­fra­struc­ture – as Polon­carz is con­sid­er­ing – it could also guar­an­tee net neu­tral­ity by re­quir­ing providers who use the govern­ment-built lines to not re­strict the con­tent they pro­vide.

Polon­carz ac­knowl­edged, though, that the in­ter­net ser­vice providers wouldn’t ex­actly be thrilled with giv­ing up power in that way.

“I’m sure they would be out­raged and be fu­ri­ous,” said Polon­carz, who added: “We’ve given the pri­vate sec­tor the op­por­tu­nity to show that it can deliver ser­vice eco­nom­i­cally and ef­fi­ciently, and they haven’t done that for the en­tire re­gion.”

Mark Mul­ville/Buf­falo News

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