On December 14, the FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, removed Title II regulations on internet service providers (ISPs), effectively ending net neutrality regulations. On Feb. 22, new rules were listed in the Federal Register, though they won’t go into effect for 60 days. In that time, Congress has an opportunity to reinstate the original rules using the Congressional Review Act. Chances may be slim, though, with a Republican controlled House and Senate.
Net neutrality describes federal regulation that forbids ISPs speeding up or slowing down access to specific internet sites. Under net neutrality rules, ISPs have to grant impartial access to the information superhighway. With net neutrality rules retracted, ISPs like AT&T, CenturyLink and Xfinity Comcast can control how fast data loads on the information superhighway. It’s akin to commoditizing all paved roads, according to Raymond Hardman, the founder of regional provider Emerald Broadband.
“Net neutrality is a gateway and any infringement upon this gateway makes the net no longer as valuable and capable as it has been,” says Hardman. “Imagine if every time you pulled out of your driveway, a company would start charging you the second that you hit the road. Every time you have to drive, you have to pay for the right to do so. And then, if you have to go a street over, someone else is charging you.”
For the first time in the United States, unprecedented access to the internet is being threatened by a handful of parties more interested in what Chairman Pai terms as a “light touch framework,” where engaged parties take “targeted action if necessary, if there was an example of anti-competitive conduct.”
This does not mean that all ISPs will decide to compete in this way. Regional ISPs like Emerald Broadband and XS Media structure their business models to align and to promote an internet free from fast and slow lanes. Instead of adhering to Pai’s capitalist ethos, these ISPs act with a devout adherence to the internet’s original intent: an unbridled forum for an exchange of ideas accessible to all people.
“This is not going to affect the way we run our business,” says Stephen Parac, CEO of XS Media. “We have always been big advocates of net neutrality and we run this company from a community perspective.”
Words like “community” and “connection” come up a lot in conversations with Parac and Hardman. In an electronic environment with little regulation, these providers will maintain internet service uninhibited by fast or slow lanes. These open internet advocates believe first in the idea of universal access to humanity’s most far-reaching communication tool.
“We are unequivocally pro net neutrality,” Hardman says. “Connectivity is a right. The goal of ISP’s should be an affordable, unfettered connection to the internet.” This is the reason that Hardman turned Emerald Broadband into a benefit corporation in April of 2016.
A benefit corporation (or B corp) is a for-profit corporate entity seeking a positive influence on society as its legally defined goals. A B corp’s board of directors operate the business with the same authority as in a traditional corporation but are required to consider the impact of decisions not only on shareholders but also on society and the environment. Shareholders judge the B corp’s performance based on the company’s social, environmental and financial impact. Establishing Emerald Broadband as a B Corp ensures that for the life of the organization, it will aim to generate a profit while enhancing access to the world wide web.
“It is more important to us that people are connected to the internet than to turn a profit,” Hardman says.
This is why when the parents of students cannot afford to pay for the access that their kids need, Emerald Broadband will provide it for them. This is why XS Media builds out internet connections for tiny rural towns like Dayton. This is why both companies are working with the city of Eugene, Lane County and EWEB to build the country’s largest high-speed, publicly owned fiber network, EUGNet.
“The internet is the foundation of all modern innovation,” says XS’s CEO Parac. He asserts that these large internet providers simply don’t want to go through the effort of figuring out how to work within the confines of the rules. “It can’t just be the Wild West. We need regulation.”
Parac harkens to the common sense regulations placed upon other paradigm-shifting inventions. “At first, car makers resisted putting seat belts in cars. But we agreed as a society that the safety of drivers should come first. In a similar way, are we going to say that internet shouldn’t be regulated because some companies don’t want to play by the rules?”
Despite the fact that there are now people alive who don’t remember the days before the internet, the world-defining invention is still in its infancy. Society is still trying to decide the best way to harbor the internet’s incredible growth. For net neutrality proponents, this will be providing the sanctuary of an even playing field with universal access. This is just as true today as it was yesterday, despite the enforced dearth of federal regulation.