SDN Blog

S.D. telecom experts sort through ‘net neutrality’ issue

Posted on Monday, April 20, 2015 in Broadband Internet

Blog written by

YPN Net Neutrality Panel

Chairman Tom Wheeler and the Federal Communications Commission had good intentions in updating regulations to ensure an open Internet, but they were hamstrung in working with outdated laws, says Mark Shlanta, CEO of SDN Communications in Sioux Falls.

“The law should be updated to give the FCC the right tools to develop the digital economy,” Shlanta says.

The FCC voted in February to regulate the Internet under the provisions of federal telecommunications laws enacted in 1934 and 1996.

“We’ve moved beyond that. We need a solid, defined broadband policy,” Shlanta says. “Given what Chairman Wheeler had to work with, he did what he could.”

Other business and government experts in South Dakota recently expressed similar views. They also questioned the need for any regulatory action by the FCC.

“From our perspective, they’re attempting to fix something that wasn’t broken,” says Jeff Carmon, a former CenturyLink executive who now assists the company as a consultant and lobbyist.

Shlanta, Carmon and Tom Simmons, senior vice president of public policy for Midcontinent Communications, discussed the issue known as “net neutrality” at a gathering hosted by the Young Professionals Network (YPN) in Sioux Falls. Other speakers on the high-powered panel were Chris Nelson, chairman of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, and Ben Ready, state director for U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

As the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Thune could play a key role in renewed legislative attempts to update federal telecommunications law.

Nelson is also in a special position of influence because he chairs the Telecommunications Committee of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissions.

At the YPN forum on April 16, the five men fielded questions posed by Jonathan Ellis, a reporter with Argus Leader Media.

Simmons said that the FCC’s recent action strikes him “as using a monkey wrench to pound a nail when there are better tools.” The uncertainty of the federal regulatory environment could negatively affect the motivation and ability of companies to invest in infrastructure improvements, Simmons said.

Congress and the federal court system, in addition to the FCC, are expected to participate in the final resolution of the issue.

“We would prefer a legislative fix,” Ready said. However, legal challenges and court appeals likely will slow the process. He estimates a resolution might be three years away.

Others have speculated that final resolution could take even longer.

Guaranteeing an open flow of electronic information by regulating the Internet like a utility is an issue with potentially far-reaching implications for consumers as well as businesses. Some observers fear that, in some situations, Internet traffic flow could be unfairly prioritized to favor one content provider over another.

Carmon worries new regulations could have unintended consequences.

“There’s no better regulation than competition,” he said. “If somebody’s doing you wrong, go someplace else.”

The capacity of some Internet-carrying lines is more of an issue than the speed at which data can travel, panel experts said.

“All of the lanes are fast,” Shlanta said. He sees issues that need to be worked out as more technical in nature than political.

Costs to Internet providers or users are among the issues yet to be addressed in detail. A special, universal service fee has helped the United States develop a nationwide infrastructure that provides most Americans access to phone service. Should that fee system be reworked to focus on the development of Internet infrastructure? Yes, perhaps, from a South Dakota perspective, because large but sparsely populated states probably would benefit.

Of course, nothing is entirely free. As Shlanta noted: “Ultimately, the consumer pays for everything that happens on the Internet.”

SDN, the host of this blog, is the premier business-to-business provider of broadband connectivity in the region. The company also provides equipment and services to help businesses and other organizations move, store and protect data. In addition, 17 SDN member phone companies serve businesses and consumers with services such as Internet, cable TV and phone networks.