Highly charged debate at the federal level over proposed regulation of the Internet has reached a significant junction, but nothing is likely to be resolved soon. Longer term, sweeping changes could be in the works.
The five-member Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday, Feb. 26 on proposed rules the panel supposedly crafted with the help of public input. To this point, the proposed rules have not been made public. The draft document of more than 300 pages might be released today (Feb. 25) to Congress for review.
The bottom line in the debate is whether the Internet should be treated as a regulated utility, like a traditional telephone service, to protect consumers and ensure the fair flow of electronic information. Critics worry that regulation of Internet service providers could become too burdensome.
The prospect of increased regulation presents a mixed bag of possible pluses and minuses for a rural state such as South Dakota. - Greg Dean, SDTA
A telecommunications industry official from South Dakota expects the issue will take years to resolve, regardless of what happens this week.
“Whatever the FCC decides on Thursday is going to be challenged in court and then, in concert with that, Congress is probably going to be looking to do some legislation of their own. So you’ve kind of got a two-tier process,” says Greg Dean, director of industry relations for the South Dakota Telecommunications Association. “It will take some time to work through the courts and Congress before it’s finally decided.”
The general intent of new rules is to ensure that users sharing legal content have equal access to the Internet. Concerns revolve around the possibility that some content providers could get or buy faster delivery service and hinder open competition.
Internet traffic is soaring, with no letup in sight. With video traffic, in particular, using more bandwidth, it’s fitting to have a vigorous public debate about whether some data should receive priority treatment and at what cost.
The prospect of increased regulation presents a mixed bag of possible pluses and minuses for a rural state such as South Dakota, Dean says.
On the positive side, federal regulations could create a funding source to help meet infrastructure needs. On the negative side, heavy regulation could increase costs.
Like nearly every federal issue these days, debate over net neutrality seems to be splitting Republicans and Democrats in the FCC, White House and Congress along party lines. Hopefully, partisan politics will give way to longer-range concerns about keeping the Internet open and flowing well.
Despite being a small state in terms of population, South Dakota is positioned to have a strong say in the continuing debate. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., is the new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
“He is going to be a key player in developing legislation related to telecommunications and net neutrality,” Dean says. “I think that’s definitely a plus for South Dakota, and I think that’s a plus for rural America.”
Chris Nelson, chairman of South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, also is positioned to help voice the interests of South Dakota and other rural states. Nelson chairs the Telecommunications Committee of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
The Telecommunications Committee provides a venue for state commissioners to analyze trends and share best practices. To carry out its duty, the committee works with the FCC, National Telecommunications and Information Administration and other agencies with important roles in related to telecommunications.
Major national Internet service providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon appear to be among the strongest critics of potential regulation.
Sioux Falls-based SDN Communications, which provides broadband connectivity and related services to businesses, potentially has a lot at stake in the outcome of the debate, as well. So do SDN’s 17 member companies in South Dakota, and the customers of telecommunications companies in the state.
A lot is on the line, but how the debate will play out remains uncertain.