Recent advancements in technology have brought faster broadband speeds and greater capabilities for connecting to the internet. Access to high-speed internet is transformative, offering new possibilities for education, agriculture and public safety. While this progress is good, the ongoing debate over net neutrality ultimately threatens the investments that are necessary to ensure rural and other underserved communities gain access and reap all of the social and economic benefits of high-speed connectivity.
Oregon is no exception. There still exists a digital divide between rural and urban areas, and in some rural areas of Oregon, up to 50 percent of homes are not connected to the internet.
Encouraging rural broadband investment is the key to bridging this digital divide and improving rural connectivity, and while the debate over net neutrality has raged for years, a firm solution has yet to be reached.
In rural Oregon, small Internet Service Providers are working to connect all communities but are especially vulnerable to the impact of national policies. With the implementation of the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rule that regulated internet service as a utility, local ISPs like Eastern Oregon Telecom were forced to direct their focus away from broadband deployment in favor of regulatory reporting and compliance. In 2017, this heavy-handed rule was repealed by the current FCC, but the uncertainty of whether it could be re-instated again is enough to stifle investment.
Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology approved the Save the Internet Act (H.R. 1644). If passed, this bill would return us to regulation of the 2015 net neutrality rule. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River), the committee’s Ranking Member, rightly opposed the bill saying “we can permanently address blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization in a bipartisan way because we all believe in an open and free internet. We believe in net neutrality.”
Rep. Walden has consistently shown leadership and a willingness to support the best policies to allow broadband investment to grow. And there is broad bi-partisan support for prohibiting activities like blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, and ensuring transparency in network management practices and prices. H.R. 1644 goes far beyond ensuring these principles and would allow for the nearly unchecked regulation of the internet, a dangerous policy that would impact the willingness of ISPs to invest in new networks for consumers.
Crafting a law that cements the principles of the open internet is an important step, but broadband must be classified as an information service not regulated as a utility. This will avoid the regulatory back-and-forth and provide the certainty necessary to incentivize the critical investments to close the divide for rural Oregonians.
Oregon should be proud of the work that Rep. Walden is doing to close the digital divide. With a broad, bi-partisan approach to codifying the principles of net neutrality, Congress can continue to encourage broadband investment — the key to ensuring rural areas have the latest internet technologies. As Rep. Walden said, net neutrality doesn’t need harmful, heavy-handed regulation, “all it needs is a Congress willing to work together on a solution.”
Tom Gurr is the executive director of The Pacific Technology Alliance, a coalition of technology leaders, rural and urban organizations and trade groups working to promote public policies that foster choice and access to technology for consumers across the Northwest.