As I’ve read some of the news coming out of Washington over the last few days about how the Federal Communications Commission is planning to do something new on net neutrality, it feels like we’re stuck in a time loop, arguing the same thing over and over again.
Broadband providers like my company, Blackfoot Communications, support enforceable consumer net neutrality protections. In my mind, that means consumers need to be assured their Internet experience is protected from discriminatory blocking and throttling. We can have those protections, however, without the heavy-handed net neutrality rules the FCC adopted two years ago, which have done little but hurt investment in new networks and created uncertainty for companies like mine.
Along with 20 other broadband providers which serve rural areas, Blackfoot recently sent a letter to the FCC urging them to return broadband service to the light-touch regulatory framework that allowed the Internet to grow and prosper. We wrote in that letter that “as providers on the front lines serving these customers, we have been saying for years that market-based, light-touch regulation will enable us to maximize private investment and public funding to ensure continued and expanded deployment of broadband infrastructure, including fiber-rich wireline networks and fifth generation (5G) fixed and mobile wireless.”
My company is based in Missoula, Mont., and we cover more than 7,000 square miles throughout Montana and parts of eastern Idaho. It’s an enormous service area with only about two customers per square mile. Not only do we provide reliable broadband and voice service to consumers living in some of the most rural portions of America, we also provide fiber-based gigabit broadband connectivity to some of Montana’s largest enterprise businesses, including the Montana Technology Enterprise Center, a tech incubator that’s affiliated with the University of Montana that has been a hub for tech innovators and startups in our state.
We’ve been serving Montana for more than 60 years and I have nearly 200 employees and dozens more retirees who count on our company for their livelihood. But we have to be careful about how to invest our company’s resources in upgrades or service area expansions. We’re currently in the middle of a multiyear upgrade, swapping out old copper wire lines for new fiber. We began the process last year in St. Ignatius, Mont., and we’re planning to start construction in two other towns in western Montana this spring.
The FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules have created confusion for Blackfoot and many other rural broadband providers. Those rules weren’t all bad — at least they gave consumers comfort in knowing that their Internet traffic couldn’t be slowed or blocked. But the way the FCC crafted them, under a law designed for old phone networks, has created tremendous uncertainty for companies like mine, because it gave the government authority to arbitrarily reject new products or services and potentially regulate prices.
A USTelecom study recently found that broadband investment dropped for the second year in a row in 2016 — a trend that began after the FCC adopted those net neutrality rules. I’m encouraged that current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is considering rolling back those rules.
We need net neutrality protections as well as more investments in networks, especially for Americans in rural areas like parts of my state, who currently don’t have access to broadband. There are so many things that divide our communities these days, but the need for better, faster broadband at home or the office isn’t one of them. I think there’s bipartisan support for making sure that every American, especially those who live in rural areas with more limited career, health, or educational opportunities than found in bigger cities, can get online.
Jason Williams is CEO of Blackfoot Communications, a telecommunications provider based in Missoula, Mont.
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