Net neutrality debate stirs little interest in area

(Information on our data-gathering methodology is included at the end of this article.)

The Federal Communications Commission voted to end net neutrality Thursday. In the days leading up to the vote, politicians and advocates on either side of the debate loudly voiced their stances on the issue.

Two days before the vote, Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and 38 other U.S. senators sent a letter to the FCC’s chairman urging him to end his “reckless plan to radically alter the free and open internet as we know it.”

U.S. Rep. Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, by contrast, issued a statement Thursday praising the FCC’s decision, arguing that deregulating internet service providers (ISPs) “will encourage investment in internet infrastructure, promote competition, and ultimately benefit consumers.”

In the northern Shenandoah Valley, however, the debate seemed to hardly gain traction at all.

Between Shenandoah, Frederick and Warren counties, just over 2,800 unique comments were logged on the FCC website during the open comment period. Frederick County submitted a particularly low number of unique comments: only eight for every 1,000 residents.

Nationally, the issue drew immense attention. To show solidarity in support of net neutrality in the weeks leading up to the FCC vote, protestors from California to Maine rallied outside Verizon stores on Dec. 7. The sole protest in the northern Shenandoah Valley was scheduled for the Verizon store on South Pleasant Valley Road in Winchester.

No protestors showed up.

Rather than a cacophony of rally chants and picket signs, the only sounds in the Winchester Verizon store were soft holiday tunes and the subdued noises of customers considering data plans.

What is net neutrality?

At the heart of the net neutrality debate is how to classify the internet.

In 2015, the Obama-era FCC classified internet broadband as a “common carrier” under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, a classification shared by telephone and radio providers. Title II requires all data transmitted to be treated equally, barring providers from throttling some content or accelerating other content.

Proponents of the FCC’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” initiative (i.e. anti-net neutrality) argue that the Title II classification doesn’t clearly explain the requirements for “common carriers” in the broadband internet business, and that it could cause ISPs to to divert resources away from building network infrastructure and instead toward paying for additional regulations.

Generally speaking, ISPs such as Verizon and Comcast oppose net neutrality, while content providers like Netflix and Reddit fear that without net neutrality, internet providers will selectively block, throttle, or offer paid prioritization of internet content.

One fear is that ISPs could block a competitor’s services from traveling through their pipelines. For example, if AT&T were to launch a music streaming service tomorrow, it could now slow down or even block customers from accessing Spotify through their AT&T network.

Many ISPs have promised not to do so, however.

“We want to create a great customer experience,” said Chris Kyle, Shentel Telecommunications vice president. “We build great networks, and we want our customers to fully utilize all of the benefits that they offer. Doing any of those things (blocking, throttling, or prioritizing content) would create a bad customer experience.”

Shentel released a video in June 2015 when the net neutrality laws first went into place, stating that the company supported the Obama-era FCC’s decision to protect content providers from being blocked or throttled, but did not appreciate the uncertainty introduced by the new regulations.

Essentially, Shentel supported the principles of net neutrality but not the Title II classification.

“It brought a lot of uncertainty into our business, and potentially a lot of unnecessary costs to comply with the regulation,” Kyle said. “Had this stayed in place, there was absolutely the potential that we would have had higher costs to comply with some of the regulatory framework.”

Shentel serves 14,600 broadband customers in Shenandoah County and 63,400 outside of the county.

When asked about the FCC’s ruling Thursday, Kyle said, “We certainly supported it.”

Local voices

Most of the comments that were logged on the FCC website in the northern Shenandoah Valley supported the FCC’s decision to deregulate ISPs. Winchester was the outlier, with comments trending slightly in favor of net neutrality.

Timothy McDonald, from Shenandoah County, wrote: “Obama’s Net Neutrality order was the corrupt result of a corrupt process controlled by Silicon Valley special interests. It gives some of the biggest companies in the world a free ride at the expense of consumers and should be immediately repealed!”

Rodney Brannon, from Frederick County, wrote: “Title II is a Depression-era regulatory framework designed for a telephone monopoly that no longer exists. It was wrong to apply it to the Internet and the FCC should repeal it and go back to the free-market approach that worked so well.”

Chelsey Moore, from Warren County, wrote: “Before leaving office, the Obama Administration rammed through a massive scheme that gave the federal government broad regulatory control over the internet. That misguided policy decision is threatening innovation and hurting broadband investment in one of the largest and most important sectors of the U.S. economy. I support the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to roll back Title II and allow for free market principles to guide our digital economy.”

Mark Robison, from Winchester, wrote: “I without hesitation support Net Neutrality Backed By Title II Oversight of ISPs. Without Net Neutrality, ISP companies will have control over what consumers can and cannot access online. I refuse to allow my ISP to control what I do with the service I pay for. Consumers should come first, not corporations.”

Winchester ranked 8th among all Virginia counties and cities in terms of comments per capita. In terms of total comments, Winchester submitted nearly as many as Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren counties combined.

 


 

Methodology:

Half a million comments submitted to the FCC website were attributed to Virginia commenters, which we trimmed down to 209,186 unique comments. We defined unique comments as FCC filings that didn’t contain identical messages by identical filer names. For instance, if someone named Jane Doe submitted the same comment twice, we ignored both of her comments.

This was done to account for comments potentially submitted by bots. Rappahannock County, for example, had over 6,000 comments, of which all but 144 were duplicates.

Population data used to calculate per-capita rankings were gathered from the U.S. Census’ 2016 estimates.

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