Update 7/18/14: The FCC extended its deadline for public comment regarding proposed changes to net neutrality rules. Feedback will be accepted through midnight on Friday, July 18.
By Marisa Demarco
—Something important is happening tonight, and only a handful of people know enough about it.
Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler is coming to Albuquerque to answer questions at the South Broadway Cultural Center at 6:30 p.m. This event, hosted by the Media Literacy Project and Digital Justice Coalition, is free and open to the public. A crew of smart young people has helped plan the event, and young folks are especially invited to attend to ask some questions.
Maybe you’re ahead of the game, so you know all about the Federal Communications Commission and how it affects your life. But I’ve been talking excitedly about Wheeler’s visit to some generally well-informed people who, it turns out, haven’t heard much about this stuff. That could be because “Federal Communications Commission” and “net neutrality” sound pretty dull. John Oliver said it best: “Net neutrality—the only two words that promise more boredom in the English language are ‘featuring Sting.’ ”
The video is a funny crash course on the issue. And this conversation with Wheeler tonight marks his first public appearance since he proposed controversial changes to how the Internet works. I will be part of the roundtable discussion with Wheeler. It’s great that we have a chance to talk about concerns that are specific to New Mexico with the chairman.
I’ve been doing my homework on the FCC, and as with most regulatory bodies, it takes a lot of digging to untangle some of what’s happened. First things first:
What is the FCC?
The commission is a governmental group that regulates radio, TV, wire, satellite and cable in the United States. Since 1934, its mission has been to make communication services available to everyone in the country with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, “without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex.”
If you’re about my age (33), you have seen first-hand the way the Internet has changed everything. Communication and information are arguably more important now than ever, and not having access to Internet or phone would be a serious disadvantage. As the net becomes entwined with our daily lives, the FCC’s role in the United States becomes more critical. And we’re at a crucial, decision-making moment that will determine how things shake out for decades to come. I’m not exaggerating.
The principal behind those two words is that everyone should be able to access all of the content on the Internet, and the companies controlling the pipes shouldn’t be able to block or slow the flow of traffic to any online destination—their competitors’ websites, for example.
The net is basically open now. You can see anything you want to. You can load nmcompass.com as quickly as nbc.com. You can create your own music, movies, videos, websites, games, journalism, blogs, photos, paintings, cartoons and—before you account for marketing—if you put it online, it has the same shot at being seen as anything else.
I’m being completely sincere when I say that I think the Internet has helped diversity flourish. That’s the cornerstone of what the New Mexico Compass is up to: using the Internet and increasingly common technology to train new journalists around the state.
It’s true that the WWW is also home to a lot of low-quality ideas and rumor, but that’s because we’re still in the infant stages of figuring out how to use it. We can’t allow anything to hobble our explorations.
Oliver, in the clip up top, describes the problem: “Ending net neutrality would allow big companies to buy their way into the fast lane, leaving everyone else in the slow lane.”
Wired says Oliver is off the mark. Tim Wu, who Wired calls the father of net neutrality, is paraphrased explaining it this way instead: “ … it all boils down to one thing: ensuring that individuals and businesses—especially small players—get fair treatment on the net.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation sees it as a First Amendment issue: “Preserving the Internet’s open architecture is critical to sustaining free speech.”
Let’s talk about how the FCC fits into all of this. In 2002, the commission decided to classify broadband companies (think Comcast or Verizon) as “internet service providers” instead of “telecommunication services,” essentially utilities that are more heavily regulated.
How would more regulation help? It could promote greater competition among Internet service providers. There used to be many of them to choose from. Now there are only a couple, and Comcast is looking to buy Time Warner, creating the largest broadband provider in the country. That puts too much power in the hands of a single corporation. The U.S. Department of Justice forced Bell Telephone Company to fracture its monopoly in the early ’80s to avoid this kind of thing.
Verizon sued the FCC to allow Internet providers to charge websites extra for faster connections—a move that net neutrality advocates argue would make the net more like cable TV. In January, Verizon won that case in Appeals Court.
Who is Tom Wheeler?
He’s been the chairman of the FCC since November. Before that, he worked in the cable and wireless industries. He proposed new rules last month, and some folks say they undermine net neutrality. He defended them in an April letter, saying he’s just trying to follow the court’s lead.
The FCC is in the process of taking public comment on the issue. File yours at the event tonight, or go to fcc.gov/comments. You have until July 15.
You can come talk to Wheeler about anything you like that’s related to the FCC’s work. This forum isn’t only about net neutrality. You might also hear people talking about:
Telehealth: With a dearth of doctors and nurses in rural parts of New Mexico, the ability to access long-distance, real-time health care is important for many people. In 2013, Gov. Susana Martinez signed a law requiring health insurance companies to cover these services.
Internet Access: It’s not just about net neutrality. This is about whether there is reliable Internet to be had in your corner of New Mexico, whether you can afford it or there’s a place you can access it for free. New Mexico is at the bottom of the list—No. 50—when it comes to having Internet at home, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Study from 2011. The Rural Development state director told the Albuquerque Journal that New Mexico has some of the slowest net speeds in the nation. This is almost too obvious to state, but: The Internet gives people a serious leg up when it comes to education, jobs and more.
Lifeline Phone Program: This is a little-known program that gives low-income consumers a discount on pre-paid wireless plans and landlines, and it might be expanded to include low-cost Internet service.
Prison Phone Rates: New Mexico capped the cost of prison phone rates in 2012. Folks have asked the FCC to do the same around the country.