A strange thing happened on the way to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s nomination for re-confirmation before the Senate last week: it was contested. Nominations to the bipartisan FCC board are usually unanimous but, as with all of politics this year, precedent had no bearing on current events. Pai—who is a Republican and former Verizon lawyer—earned this dubious honor by making it clear he supports further media company consolidation, paving the way for more companies to consolidate into powerful media conglomerates. What is perhaps even more contentious, though, is his opposition to net neutrality, which could have devastating consequences for individual consumers’ wallets and local communities’ access to affordable internet connections.
Right now you can visit nearly any website you want, use any service, and connect to just about any other person who has an internet-enabled device. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) is not allowed to play favorites with content or customers because, after a reclassification in 2014, they have been regulated under a rule called “common carriage” found in the Communications Act of 1934. If your ISP were not considered a common carrier, it could start giving priority to content it owns and even block competitors. Comcast, for example, could boost the speed of Hulu (which it owns a stake in) and slow down or even block competitors like Netflix. When the nerd in your life posts something about “net neutrality,” they are talking about preserving the protections bestowed by the Title II designation.
The coverage of net neutrality has largely focused on national politics, large corporations, and the broad economic implications of network regulation. Little has been said about the tangible impact of net neutrality’s demise on local communities. Businesses, labor unions, and nonprofit organizations rely on, and even base their work off of, a free and open internet. Net neutrality’s demise, if it does come to pass, will have an outsized impact on the people who rely on the internet the most to access essential services and run their organizations.
Back in April, about two dozen regional ISPs sent a formal letter to Chairman Pai in support of the removal of Title II regulations. Ever since, Pai has used that letter as a cudgel, saying that these are the kinds of small- and medium-sized businesses he wants to save. Dane Jasper, CEO of Sonic.net, a regional ISP based in Santa Rosa, California that offers services to San Francisco Bay and Sacramento is skeptical: “When I look at that list [of ISPs that signed the letter to Pai] what I see is small cable monopolists, cable franchises that you’ve never heard of but have the same philosophical underpinnings of a Charter or a Comcast.” He adds: “Wireless ISPs were the other major category who have taken issue with net neutrality.”
Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) eschew expensive cable infrastructure and rely on a series of powerful antennas to beam internet service to customers. Jasper has a two-part theory about why some WISPs have sided with the big cable companies: First, “wireless ISPs tend to serve more rural regions of the country and those tend to be more red than blue and tend to adopt a small government or deregulatory philosophy.” Second, he says the politics are embedded in the wireless technology itself: One antenna has a fixed amount of bandwidth that it serves to multiple customers. Usually everyone isn’t using their whole connection, so companies sell more bandwidth than they have to deliver. This becomes a problem in the evening, when everyone is home and wants to stream videos. “Many of these WISPs manage traffic and, basically, in order to keep the browsing experience feeling snappy they throttle the amount of bandwidth that is available per video stream to folks using services like YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix,” Jasper says. “And so the visible outcome is blurry TV.” Cable has a similar bandwidth apportionment problem, but the scale is much different than these smaller wireless companies.
Brough Turner, cofounder and chief technology officer for a Boston-based WISP called netBlazr, says, “While I have strong personal feelings about net neutrality, the FCC, spectrum policy, structural separation and so on, speaking for my small ISP the whole Net Neutrality debate is either a competitive advantage or completely irrelevant.” Turner wants his company to offer the whole internet while the big guys start offering it in bits and pieces at ever-higher rates.
This may not be possible for all small ISPs, as some of them lease their connections from the same companies that want to create the tiers in the first place.
Companies that do use network management typically use devices made by either Sandvine Corporation or Procera Networks, according to Jasper. When I asked Turner about whether netBlazr throttles video, he said, “We don’t use traffic shaping or other traffic management by Sandvine, Procera or others.” He went on to note that rural WISPs tend to use these services more often because of the long distances their signals have to travel put a strain on the network.
Sandvine was purchased by Procera’s holding company Francisco Partners in July 2017. In 2016, Francisco made $416,000 in political contributions, with the vast majority going to Democrats. New York Senator Chuck Schumer got the highest amount—$10,800, according to data collected by OpenSecrets. Both of New York’s senators have come out in favor of net neutrality, but as well-heeled organizations like Francisco Partners look to scale up and establish themselves as the providers of throttling services for the major cable companies, we may quickly see bipartisan support for a tiered internet.
Massive Mesh, the local ISP in Troy, is a WISP. I contacted their office multiple times, but no one returned my calls. To be clear, I do not know if Massive Mesh throttles video connections, and it would be odd if they did. Steve Pierce, executive director of the Sanctuary for Independent Media located in North Central Troy has been working with Massive Mesh to bring internet to their underserved block. The Sanctuary produces a lot of video content with the goal of acting as an internet-enabled public access television station.
Pierce, along with his partner Branda Miller, an art professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, fought for public access cable for over a decade but got nowhere. “The battle lines are drawn,” explains Pierce, “between elected officials, who are not sophisticated about telecommunications issues and have very little money at their disposal, and a huge multinational corporation.”
That is ultimately why Pierce says he and Miller started their own media center. “All of the distribution we do is based on a free and open internet. … If people want to watch our videos, if people want to get our content in general, they do it over the internet. YouTube, Vimeo, The Internet Archive, whatever. That’s been a really effective way to get content out.” When I ask Pierce what he thinks ending net neutrality would do to the internet in general he points to cable TV’s declining subscription numbers and doesn’t mince words about the root cause: “it’s a steamy pile of crap and nobody wants to pay for it.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans still have a cable TV subscription but that is rapidly declining with 61 percent of 19-29 year-olds saying they watch television exclusively through streaming services. Regardless of the quality of television or what technology Americans use to access it, what’s most important to Pierce is the fact that commercial content is pushing out what little publicly funded and controlled media is left. He sees this as part of the Trump administration’s larger assault on civil society: “eliminating the funding for public broadcasting, eliminating funding for public arts, eliminating funding for science research. You look at this as a total package and its eliminating the public’s ability to educate and communicate.”
If there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s that the telecommunications unions — the organizations that represent the actual people who build and maintain the physical infrastructure of the internet— want to build a bigger and faster network instead of slicing and dicing the existing infrastructure into a tiered content delivery system. On July 17, the Communication Workers of America released a joint statement with the NAACP saying that they had submitted a formal comment to the FCC upholding four “bright line” rules for an open internet. Those rules, which were based on previous statements from past FCC chairs, state that no content should be blocked, throttled, or in any other way discriminated against based on the sender, receiver, or nature of the content as long as it was legal. It also called for transparency regarding internet speeds and network administration. Nowhere in the 21-page statement, however, do they use the words “net neutrality.”
I left a message with Albany’s local CWA 1118, and while no one returned my call, it seems clear that a tiered internet would work against them, too. Unlike their bosses, workers don’t benefit from overselling bandwidth or throttling traffic. They benefit from expanding and improving the network which requires skilled employees doing real work. That is why 1118 has, in years past, pushed Verizon to expand their FiOS service in the Capital Region and compete with Spectrum for premium internet services.
The end of net neutrality poses a serious danger to the livelihoods of workers, is a point of contention for regional ISPs, and a cause for introspection for nonprofits like The Sanctuary. Pierce’s voice gets somber when he says, “We live in a mediated world and the internet is where it happens, so we need to protect it.” Later though, he becomes resolute: “in-person interaction is really at the core of what we’re doing. The internet is an adjunct to that. At the root it’s about people getting together and working together as a team to get what they want and we’ll never let that go. That’s our bottom line.”