Nothing comes easy in the net neutrality battle. Take how different municipal broadband providers disagree over FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal to reclassify broadband providers as public utilities under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.
Some municipalities oppose Wheeler's plan, while others back it. The plan is set for a vote before the five-member Federal Communications Commission on Feb. 26.
Municipal broadband providers who oppose the Title II reclassification jumped quickly to attack Wheeler's plan. In a letter to the FCC on Tuesday, officials at 43 municipal broadband providers called for relief from possible Title II regulation. They cited the potential for future FCC regulation of the rates they charge and burdensome administrative requirements, among other concerns.
All 43 towns are members of the American Cable Association, a trade group of mainly small and medium-sized cable companies that offer Internet and other services.
While Wheeler and FCC officials have assured the public that his proposal will not impose rate regulation or tariffs on Internet service providers, the group said that view is "cold comfort," arguing the current commission cannot bind the actions of future commissions. The group also anticipates "significant common carrier compliance and reporting obligations" that would require hiring staff and attorneys.
Wheeler's plan also includes requirements for service providers to be open and transparent about business practices, including real-time network congestion, which "could be significantly burdensome for providers of our size," the group said.
The group concluded that economic hardship from "the collateral effects of a change in regulatory status ... will trigger consequences beyond the commission's control and risk serious harm to our ability to fund and deploy broadband."
Many of the municipal broadband providers that signed the letter are from small communities, including Auburn, Ind., with a population of 13,300 and about 2,000 fiber-optic cable Internet customers. Auburn Mayor Norman Yoder, who signed the letter to the FCC electronically, could not be reached for comment. Also, representatives from Jackson, Tenn., Lafayette, La., and Morristown, Tenn., who also signed the letter electronically, could not be reached to comment.
At least four of the signatories to the anti-Title II letter are members of the Next Century Cities coalition, which has organized to promote expansion of fast and affordable broadband. Many cities in the coalition in early February praised President Obama and the FCC for taking steps to allow municipal broadband in the 19 states that ban or limit cities from offering broadband services that compete with private offerings.
While some cities in Next Century Cities support Title II reforms, others do not, highlighting the differing views in towns and cities around the nation. "We respect the right of our cities to make a decision that works best for them," NCC Executive Director Deb Socia said in an interview.
Supporters of Title II reclassification generally believe it will ensure net neutrality and openness that will work to stimulate more Internet innovation as well as new applications that stimulate broadband deployment. Wheeler's plan would prevent throttling and blocking of lawful content and services for both wired and mobile broadband providers. It would also allow content providers like Netflix to have the ability to see how Internet providers are using technology to handle network congestion.
Various municipal broadband providers filed petitions to the FCC in favor of Title II reclassification prior to the unveiling of Wheeler's plan on Feb. 4. Their numbers include a nonprofit, intergovernmental consortium called UC2B that serves the University of Illinois and the entire Champaign-Urbana area with fast fiber-optic cable connections.
In an interview, UC2B board member Charlie Smyth called the Title II concerns raised by the 43 towns a "smokescreen" and "phony." Smyth is also an Urbana City Council member and mayor pro tem.
"I'm very surprised by the their view," Smyth added, referring to the municipal broadband Title II opponents. "It doesn't make sense to me and runs contrary" to the purpose of municipal broadband to serve the entire community. In the UC2B example, fiber connections have already been made in low-income areas and to 400 institutions and will soon be rolled out to other households in the area.
UC2B was created along general net neutrality principles, Smyth said. "We firmly believe everyone should have the right to equal Internet speeds regardless of income and other factors, and we're committed to the open access concept. By default, we support Title II and net neutrality in general where whole communities are able to determine their own destiny. We see a future built around 1 Gbps access."
Smyth said that UC2B has attracted AT&T and Comcast to start offering more competitive Internet packages and better rates in the Champaign-Urbana area. "No one should be at the behest of a small, powerful set of incumbent providers who can dictate what Internet you are going to get. We really believe in allowing for competition or requiring open access for incumbents."
To Smyth and UC2B, Internet access is a utility, just as much as water, sewer or electrical service. "We are replacing copper lines with fiber to the home. That Internet service is completely analogous to sewer and water and is the 21st century equivalent to electricity," he said.