What Will The Death Of Net Neutrality Mean For Rural Communities?

Listen Now
4min 32sec

The Federal Communications Commission starts dismantling net neutrality regulations on April 23, 2018. That could mean when you’re watching that next episode of ‘The Crown” it could buffer endlessly or not. No one really knows yet.  

We do know that access and streaming issues are already an issue for rural Americans and getting rid of net neutrality could impact them the most.

Kate Vickery and her husband are horse people. They also work in tech -- developing and designing software.

So when they moved to Colorado a little over a year ago they were looking for two things in a home: wide open space and a solid internet connection. They finally found a place in Westcliffe.  It’s a town of around six hundred people nestled in a pastoral valley between two snow-capped mountain ranges.

Vickery muses that out here, “You know you may still have a hard work day, life is still life, but at the end of the day you walk out your front door and you’ve got mountains and horses and pasture and life is okay.”

Life is okay here for Vickery because her internet is mostly good. From her home office you can see through the window to some hills that have a wireless tower on them. That cell tower is Vickery’s connection to the internet..  

But, she says, “if you’re on the wrong side of the mountain where you’ve got the shadow of a hill in the way then you don’t have broadband access.”

And that’s the reality for most of the community here. So what will the end of net neutrality mean for Westcliffe and other rural places that already face limited service? Predictions are all over the map.  

Many folks are still scratching their heads about what net neutrality means in the first place. Explainer videos have popped up all over the web, like this viral ad from Burger King, of all places.

It’s a parody on net neutrality called “Whopper Neutrality.” The video shows customers getting upset that they have to either pay $26 for a burger or wait 45 minutes to get it.  

The moral here is that without net neutrality, the company serving up your content (in this scenario, your hamburger) will charge more unless you pay for the fast lane.

And that could be true whether it’s an episode of ‘The Crown’ you want to stream or getting online and signing up for healthcare.  

Caroline Fry, advocacy and media manager for Colorado Common Cause, is in the “Net-neutrality-is-better-for-democracy” camp.

“What net neutrality protects is for content to operate freely online,” she says.

Fry says people living in rural communities like Westcliffe are are already at a disadvantage when it comes to internet and that makes them especially vulnerable.

She says they rely more on the web for running their businesses, accessing education, news, health care, entertainment, you name it. But they often have fewer options when it comes to providers.

“So there’s more of a risk for internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast or Verizon to come in and ask them to pay for accessing content,” Fry says.

Or the ISPs could slow down or block website content altogether if no one is willing to pay extra. Fry says our daily lives rely so heavily on the internet now that access is a democracy issue.

She says it’s a big deal. “It’s more than just about do I watch Netflix or Hulu? This is about how do I get the resources I need to be able to participate in our society, ” Fry says.

Not true, says the “Net-neutrality-kills-innovation” camp. Montana Public Service Commissioner Travis Kavulla sits on the panel that oversees telecommunications for the state of Montana. He says the internet relies far too much on federal subsidies and content providers like Netflix, Google and Apple are getting a free ride. He’d like to see those companies picking up the tab.

He calls it a “content sponsorship model of the deployment of broadband.”

Right now, he says, net neutrality prohibits that sponsorship which means there’s less money for innovation and expanding rural access. Getting rid of net neutrality changes that, and is good for everyone, urban and rural alike.  

Kavulla is less concerned about preserving an egalitarian world wide web.

But he wonders if that’s really a bad thing, “I mean wouldn't your average rural consumer prefer a high speed broadband network where certain content albeit was preferred over a crappy broadband network where everything is equally slow?”

Maybe the answer is already in on that. According to a number of surveys the vast majority of Americans support keeping net neutrality in place.

And states are already taking action. Earlier this year, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, issued an executive order to keep net neutrality in his state. Idaho and Colorado both have legislative efforts underway to accomplish a similar goal.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.