What is net neutrality?
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission did the unthinkable: It scrapped the net neutrality regulations that some of us have come to know, but all of us, whether we’re aware of it or not, have come to love.
It was because of net neutrality that we could stream Netflix and Spotify on the cheap, access the full political spectrum of news without interference and poke around Facebook for free without our web browsers slowing to a crawl. But all of that may change now with the Obama-era regulations gone, and there’s not much any of us can do about it but rely on Congress to help us.
So it’s lucky, then, for those of us in Sacramento that our city is in a unique position to take advantage of the new regulatory environment.
(I’m going to pre-emptively hedge on the word “advantage” here because, in truth, no consumer has an advantage over a telecommunications company with the protective shield of net neutrality out of the picture. That’s why protesters who were out en masse last Thursday denounced FCC Chairman Ajit Pai as a “puppet” and chanted “Whose net? Our net!” But I digress.)
Some of you might recall that last month, Verizon announced it would make Sacramento the first city in the country to have 5G – or fifth-generation – residential wireless broadband service. We beat out at least two other cities for it, following a few months of being a test market.
Now if all goes well, many more Sacramentans will be able to tap into the ultra-high-speed service with their smartphones, tablets and computers by the second half of 2018.
The deal, in part, is the culmination of another one inked in June. The City Council voted earlier this year to fast-track a contract with the telecom, allowing it to outfit 101 city utility poles with wireless antennas and install a fiber network underground in exchange for rolling out Wi-Fi in 27 city parks.
At the time, some critics derided it as a “corporate giveaway,” complaining that Sacramento would be giving up $2 million in lease payments for those utility poles over the next 10 years.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg insisted it was a “reasonable risk” that would serve “the public interest.” Fast-forward a few months and it’s beginning to look like he was right.
What it comes down to is increased competition as a way of keeping telecommunications companies in check. Right now, most of us in Sacramento are limited when it comes to choosing an internet service provider. We have access to the dreaded Comcast or the slightly more palatable AT&T. But soon we’ll have Verizon, too, which will make us unusual.
Nationally, only about 22 percent of Americans have more than one option for a broadband provider in their market, according to the FCC. In fact, four corporations – Comcast, Charter, AT&T and Verizon – account for about 76 percent of the 94.5 million internet subscribers nationwide, according to Leichtman Research Group.
With net neutrality gone, Americans are likely to find themselves even more at the mercy of internet service providers.
Under the regulations, the web was treated as a public utility, with websites ranging from behemoths, such as YouTube, to the tiniest of Silicon Valley startups having equal access to it. For example, Comcast, which owns NBC, couldn’t prevent or somehow make it harder for its customers to stream episodes of “Blackish” because the series airs on network rival ABC.
But now, the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world are free to start charging extra for certain websites and streaming services, such as Hulu or CNN, or even to block certain content from customers’ data plans. Verizon and Comcast swear they won’t do it, as does the FCC’s Pai. I don’t believe it.
Think of it as an insurance policy then that consumers can switch internet service providers if they don’t like what they’re getting from their current provider. Having a competitive market is no substitute for good old fashioned regulations. But if we have to do without net neutrality, then it’s a decent consolation prize.
What’s more, 5G is widely considered to be the next generation of broadband technology. Instead of relying on copper wires or fiber-optic cables, it uses radio signals from “small cell” antennae mounted on utility poles. In theory, such a system is cheaper and easier to roll out, making it easier to expand access to the internet at a time when people need it.
A big part of Sacramento’s deal with Verizon was streamlining the permitting process to tap into the city’s existing fiber network and utility poles. Other California cities have been notoriously reluctant to do the same.
Hundreds of city and county governments pushed back against the bill, saying that it would’ve removed their discretion over where the unsightly antennas would go. Some of them, they noted, are as big as a refrigerator. Perhaps more to the point, the bill also would’ve greatly reduced the leasing fees cities and counties collect from the telecommunications companies. San Diego, for example, makes about $4 million a year, with rates at $4,000 per pole for the first 50 poles. “Small cell” wireless equipment accounts more than 20 percent of that total.
“It’s a Pandora’s box for California cities,” Reinette Senum, a city councilwoman in Nevada City, told The Bee earlier this year. “It’s one that blatantly strips local government of the authority to protect quality of life for residents, the environment and the public right-of-way.”
But with net neutrality now, well, neutralized, and a clear need to expand options for broadband is apparent, maybe it’s time for cities and counties to reconsider. Or maybe Sacramento will have to be the experiment. That’s fine. Anything to keep my broadband internet bill low.