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EDITOR’S NOTE: The Appalachian Ohio-West Virginia Connectivity Summit closed out its July 19, 2017, gathering on rural broadband solutions with a town hall featuring Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. After Clyburn gave her comments to the group (excerpted below), participants testified on the topic of rural broadband.
I am going to … give out some grades this evening. … If I had to rank how we [the Federal Communications Commission] are prioritizing fast, affordable broadband, and robust consumer protections, I would have to give the FCC a B+ on getting broadband into communities most in need, a C on broadband affordability, and an F on broadband consumer protections. Let me tell you why.
On broadband deployment, we have acknowledged that we have a problem, and that is a critical first step. It is unacceptable to me that over 20% of rural Americans do not have high speed broadband. The FCC has initiated several proceedings over the past few months that look at subsidizing fixed and mobile broadband in areas that are unserved today. We have also looked at making structural changes to our rules, so that it is easier and cheaper for companies that deploy this often-costly infrastructure to do so. And while I welcome these changes, I must caution that it will take time for you to see the real benefits in your backyard. That said, I am all for resolving these proceedings quickly and making sure that the communities without broadband, will not have to go without much longer.
One area where I think as a country we could do better is on allowing communities who don’t feel adequately served by their current broadband providers, to serve themselves. We allow localities to do so for water, electricity, and roads, but for the basic infrastructure of the 21st century—broadband internet—many communities are restricted in their ability to build and offer broadband. I believe that where communities are not being adequately served by the private sector, they should be able to band together and deploy their own infrastructure. You provide your own electricity service here through a cooperative. Perhaps, like a growing number of cooperatives across the nation, a cooperative could also provide broadband.
On affordability, we aren’t doing quite so well. Whenever we have seen broadband providers propose to merge, I have fought for conditions that ensure they offer affordable solutions for the lowest-income Americans. And I have fought for broadband to be included in our Lifeline program, so that those with the least can get a discount on broadband service. But the current majority is not a big fan of Lifeline, and is against imposing the types of conditions that I described. And even if you are inclined to agree with them, remember this: the power of broadband connectivity, is not worth much to your neighbor, if they cannot afford it.
The fight for affordable and available communications services requires all hands-on deck. We each need to make sure that one’s opportunity is not limited based on the family they were born into, or where they choose or are forced to live. For those struggling to pay their bills each month, a $100 broadband bill is out of reach. And affordable broadband for them, is not only a window to a brighter tomorrow, but a means to attract more people to their communities, new commercial neighbors on Main Street and surrounding areas, and for municipal leaders, those last two outcomes, mean a healthier tax base.
[Regarding consumer protections,] I am deeply concerned. As you may know, last year, the FCC laid out some rules of the road for broadband, adopting protections which we call “open internet,” but what is more commonly called net neutrality. Our rules were adopted to ensure that your broadband provider can’t tell you what you could or couldn’t do with your broadband connection. Things like blocking or slowing down your internet connection to favor a competitor’s content, or making sure that your privacy rights are protected, by preventing your broadband provider from selling your browsing or app data history, unless they at least get your permission first.
Having adequate protections and a provider not playing favorites, are what it is all about for me, and I am not alone. Just this month, a new survey found that 77 percent of Americans, support keeping our 2015 net neutrality rules in place. There is similarly strong support for privacy protections, despite action by Congress earlier this year that disapproved the FCC’s broadband privacy rules.
And for those who question my position supporting strong open internet rules and protections, I do not take any offense, and ask that you not simply take my word for it. But I do have two simple asks: I implore you to call up your broadband service provider, and ask them this, are there currently any rules on the books that prevent you, broadband service provider, from collecting and selling my personal data, when I use your internet connection? Do not accept a lot of words that sound like corporate speak. Ask them for a simple yes or no answer.
Because, as we speak, the FCC is currently proposing to undo those 2015 net neutrality rules and the authority underpinning it with the blessing of these providers. And for those of you who understandably question, if I am simply a partisan holdover and am out of sync with the times, I urge you to ask the FCC leadership this: if the current open internet rules are repealed, will the FCC still have clear legal authority to subsidize broadband deployment here in Appalachia, to ensure competitive access to the existing monopoly infrastructure here in Appalachia, or, will there be a referee on the field when it comes to consumers’ experience and protections when it comes to their broadband provider here in Appalachia? Do not accept an answer in regulatory or legal speak. Ask them to answer yes or no.
If you care about robust broadband, if you care about being able to use the internet without your service provider compromising your privacy, picking winners and losers online, if you want infrastructure built in your communities, then you cannot remain on the sidelines. File comments in our open internet proceeding, let your federal Representative or Senators hear about what you think and what you need. Make your voice heard.
Mignon Clyburn has served on the Federal Communications Commission since 2009.