Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel of the Federal Communications Commission visited the University of Michigan Monday night to discuss net neutrality with Jack Bernard, associate general counsel of the University, to a crowd of about 150 students, staff and community members at the Ford School of Public Policy.
The FCC decided to repeal net neutrality rules on Dec. 14, and the repeal took effect June 11. This decision allows broadband providers to change the pricing packages for different users and different content. Rosenworcel was one of the two dissenters in the agency’s decision to repeal net neutrality and has since been a vocal supporter of the protections.
Bernard said a cloud of confusion often surrounds net neutrality, so he began the policy talk by asking Rosenworcel to define the term.
“It means that you can go where you want and do what you want online, and your broadband provider does not make decisions for you,” Rosenworcel explained. “It means your broadband provider does not have the legal right to block websites, to throttle online services or censor online content.”
Rosenworcel emphasized the importance of the non-discriminatory protections of net neutrality, which ensured broadband providers could not treat the traffic on their networks differently based on source or content. In order to illustrate the meaning of non-discrimination protections, Rosenworcel compared old telephone networks to internet providers.
“Think back to the basic telephone network,” Rosenworcel said. “It is a given that if you went to a wired phone on a wall, you could call whoever you want. The telephone company can’t decide you can’t call that person, nor can they go in and edit your conversation. In other words, you have a non-discriminatory right to make that phone call — it’s up to you.”
To provide insight to the other side of the aisle, Bernard asked Rosenworcel to provide a “steel man” instead of a “straw man” argument for her opposition.
“We want our broadband providers to experiment and come up with package plans that serve everyone, and making revenue from online platforms is an important part of that mix, or setting up services that only allow people to reach small portions of the internet could create more and different packages,” Rosenworcel said. “We want them to have that freedom to experiment.”
Though Rosenworcel provided the statement, she quickly added she could refute what she had just said. Rosenworcel said her support of net neutrality protections would be questionable if the broadband provider market was competitive, but that is currently not the case.
“I believe you need less oversight if you have a competitive marketplace,” Rosenworcel said. “Competitive marketplaces are themselves the best regulator of activity. But when you look at the broadband provider marketplace, according to the FCC’s own data, about half of the American public does not have a choice of broadband provider.”
Opponents to net neutrality claim the protections hamper business and innovation. However, Rosenworcel insists the opposite is true. Since broadband providers are no longer legally obligated to treat their internet traffic equally, Rosenworcel said small businesses could experience adverse effects.
“They have the right to go to any entrepreneur or creator that wants to put something online, and say, ‘Hey if you want to reach that customer, you have to pay us a toll,’” Rosenworcel said.
As an engineer possibly interested in government work, Business and Engineering sophomore Amulya Parmar found Rosenworcel’s comments on entrepreneurs especially important, as he himself started a small web-hosting business in high school.
“To me this net neutrality conversation is important,” Parmar said. “It epitomizes that I was, even as a high school student, able to build my own internet company.”
Gloria and Wayne Baker attended Rosenworcel’s policy talk because their hometown — Manchester, Michigan — recently voted overwhelmingly against an initiative to bring broadband internet to the community. Installing broadband internet would have charged residents based on how much land they own, so people with large farms generally did not support the initiative. The Bakers rely on satellite internet access, which is typically slower than broadband internet.
“People who had more money had access to pay for Wi-Fi as much as they wanted, and those people who had more money also had larger land, so they would have been charged more for it,” Gloria said.
Rosenworcel is known for coining the term “homework gap,” referring to the lack of internet access for many low-income and rural students to complete their schoolwork. Wayne said other Manchester residents suggested simply waiting for 5G, a faster satellite internet service, instead of installing broadband internet. However, waiting for the upgrade could take years.
“The problem with that is 5G is not tomorrow, it’s years and years away,” Wayne said. “So in the interim, what can people with young families do whose kids need to do homework and don’t have access to good internet speeds to do that?”