Eastern Oregon Telecom President Joseph Franell jumped into the fray of Congress’ net neutrality debate Thursday.
Franell traveled from Hermiston to Washington, D.C., to testify in front of lawmakers from the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee by invitation of Rep. Greg Walden, the committee’s top-ranking Republican. Walden has introduced legislation that would prohibit internet service providers from practices such as blocking or throttling traffic to lawful websites and requiring sites to pay for prioritization.
The idea that all websites, from the page of a small local business to Amazon.com, should be treated equally is known as net neutrality. Video of Franell’s opening remarks shows he told lawmakers he believed internet service providers, such as EOT, should be able to prioritize some traffic over others — a 911 call over other calls, for example, or emergency medical information over online gaming.
“Students participating in distance education or online standardized testing should get priority over those streaming online movies for entertainment,” he said.
Defenders of net neutrality — which Franell accused of “fear-mongering” —have pushed back on the idea of allowing internet providers to pick and choose which traffic they prioritize. They say it would open the door to less ethical practices, such as slowing traffic to websites owned by a competitor or promoting a political ideology the provider disagrees with.
Advocates for a “free and open” internet want to preserve an internet where a local news website or personal blog is on a level playing field with websites like Netflix, which could afford to pay if providers like Comcast or Charter started charging fees for access to their customers.
In 2015, to enforce net neutrality, the Obama-era Federal Communications Commission classified broadband internet as a Title II utility, allowing the FCC to heavily regulate service providers. In 2017, under the Trump administration, the internet was reclassified as a Title I utility, ending net neutrality.
Franell told committee members Thursday that the Title II era had a “dramatic chilling effect on rural telecommunication in the Pacific Northwest.” Investors were extremely hesitant to invest in rural broadband, he said, and companies had to spend large amounts of time and resources on reporting to the federal government, drawing those resources away from serving customers and expanding service to more rural areas.
Franell urged lawmakers to avoid changing the internet back to a Title II utility as they considered rules to prevent bad behavior by service providers — behavior he said EOT and other rural internet providers in Oregon have never engaged in, even when legal.
“I believe Title II had begun to harm the internet in the U.S., and a reapplication of it has the very real possibility of resulting in unforeseen and irrevocable damage,” he said.
In a news release, Walden said Title II had given “big government unlimited authority to micromanage every single aspect of a provider’s business.” He said since its repeal both Democrats and Republicans have agreed that there does need to be limits on some behaviors, however, such as, arbitrarily blocking access to websites.
Walden told the other members of the Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday that the internet was “the single most important driver of economic growth, job creation, and a better quality of life for all Americans” and it was important to create legislation that would provide more stability for providers than having the FCC reclassify the internet at the whim of every new administration.
“For me, this debate is very much about the impact on providers like (Franell) who are trying to close the digital divide,” Walden said. “Heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all regulations hurt small internet service providers like Eastern Oregon Telecom the most, and this in turn hurts their ability to expand broadband to underserved communities in rural America.”
Franell told the Hermiston Herald that he had seen so much misinformation about net neutrality that when he was invited to testify he felt it was important to do what he could to tell the truth. He said he was interested to see the emotional progression that took place over the three-and-a-half hour hearing.
There was a lot of passion and anger on display in the first hour, he said, but as the hearing continued people on both sides of the political aisle seemed to realize “they were on the same sheet of music for the most part.”
“Everyone thought that Democrats were for a free and open internet and Republicans are against it, but that’s not true,” he said. “... Everyone in the room, I think, agreed that throttling, paid prioritization and blocking are wrong.”
He said he felt more confident at the end of the hearing that Congress can come up with a good piece of legislation to protect the internet without unduly burdening providers.
“It went really well,” he said.