The mayors of seven Massachusetts cities were among nearly 60 local leaders who sent a letter on Thursday to the Federal Communications Commission, asking the FCC not to undo Obama-era internet regulations.
And while much of the discussion around the dismantling of the so-called net neutrality rules has focused on the possibility of internet providers charging for faster delivery of websites or blocking content, the issue is also raising questions about how the change might affect cities and towns that are trying to ensure high-speed access for all their residents.
Tim Newman is a filmmaker who lives in the small town of New Marlborough, in the southwestern corner of Massachusetts.
“I got interested in broadband many years ago, because I was very frustrated I couldn’t upload files,” he said.
Newman said no company wanted to install the wires for high-speed internet. There just weren’t enough people in the town to make it profitable. So he founded an organization called Wired West, which is devoted to finally getting broadband coverage to about 20 towns in western Massachusetts.
He’s still trying to get it in New Marlborough. And there’s a few ways it could happen.
“One option is for us to build a network that the town would then own," he said. "And that means we can control everything including the pricing.” But the downside is the town would have to pay two thirds of the cost – more than $3 million. The state would pay the rest. That plan would require a local tax hike that’s not too popular.
“The other option is that if there is a private sector provider, a cable company like Comcast or Charter, that would be willing to wire our towns, there would be no cost,” Newman said.
But they’d lose control, including how much users would be charged for the service. It’s a dilemma. And now it’s getting more complicated with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to dismantle the so-called net neutrality regulations that govern what the internet providers can do.
If New Marlborough were to choose to work with a broadband company, rather than building their own network, Newman is worried about what the proposed changes in FCC regulations could mean.
“From everything that I have heard and read about the changes in the net neutrality rules," he said, "the ultimate impact is going to be it puts more power in the hands of the various providers, and that it’s going to result in higher fees for service.”
Right now, cities and towns have a little bit of leverage when talking to cable companies about installing fiber networks, according to Harvard law professor Susan Crawford.
"Through saying, 'Look, come and build this network for us. But you can only build it by providing equal service to everybody in town and at a low price,' that's how that particular direction is being carried out in Massachusetts,” Crawford said. But she said towns may not be able to do that anymore. “The great uncertainty created by the recent FCC order is that Mr. Pai has said that any language coming out of a city or a state that's inconsistent with what I'm up to is hereby blocked by this order.”
Crawford also said that if a town required a company to build a network that reaches all its residents, it could be violating the new FCC rule.
Professor Daniel Lyons of Boston College doesn’t agree. “I don’t think there’s a direct impact on municipalities,” Lyons said, adding that towns that want to build their own networks still could.
Lyons is a self-described net-neutrality skeptic. He said the Obama-era rules are unnecessary and are stifling innovation.
But Lyons does – sort of – agree with Crawford on one point about the proposal. “It will put limits on municipalities ability to go and tell the Comcasts and the Verizons of the world what they have to offer and at what price," he said. "But it's not clear to me that they have that authority now.”
And he said the rules have to be consistent. “The FCC is repealing net neutrality, and it's telling state and local governments, 'you can't go create net neutrality for Massachusetts or net neutrality for the town of Concord or whatever.'”
Thursday, the mayors of Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Leverett, New Bedford, Northampton, and Springfield were among 58 local leaders who sent a letter to the FCC, opposing the proposal. They stressed the impact in areas where there’s just a single service provider, saying there’s nothing they could do to stop that company from blocking or slowing service, or from making it too expensive for low-income families.
In Boston, chief information officer Jascha Franklin-Hodge said the city’s been trying to establish some competition. When Verizon finishes installing Fios service, he said every resident will have at least two choices for internet access. Even so, right now 20 percent of homes in Boston — most of them low-income — don’t have any high-speed connection.
"So anything that threatens to raise the price of Internet access worries us, because that's going to make it less affordable and less accessible for the lowest income consumers in Boston," Franklin-Hodge said. "And that means that they're likely to fall further behind if they don't have access to this important resource."
The FCC is scheduled to vote on the net neutrality proposal next Thursday.