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Two local experts say Bloomington-Normal Internet users shouldn’t panic—at least for now—about this week’s planned FCC vote to loosen regulations of cable and telecom companies.
The Federal Communications Commission will vote Thursday on a plan to undo the landmark 2015 rules that had placed Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon under the strictest-ever regulatory oversight. The vote is expected to repeal so-called net neutrality rules, which prevent broadband companies from slowing down or blocking any sites or apps, or otherwise deciding what content gets to users faster.
“The Internet is not gonna stop working the next day. It’ll still be on. It’ll still work. You’ll still be able to stream things and send email,” said Mark DeKeersgieter, executive director of the Central Illinois Regional Broadband Network, which delivers high-speed fiber-optic service to local schools, governments, and businesses. “Regardless of how the vote shakes out, business will continue as usual.”
Appearing on GLT’s Sound Ideas, DeKeersgieter said Bloomington-Normal residents have been asking him about what the end of net neutrality will mean for their daily Internet use. They’re most concerned about whether their video streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and other platforms will be slowed down or cost them more money, he said. About two-thirds of CIRBN’s traffic at any given time is video streaming, DeKeersgieter said, even though most of its clients are not residential.
The fight over net neutrality is mostly about carriers, such as Comcast or AT&T, looking to make more money from the content companies (like Netflix) whose customers use the carriers’ networks, he said. Comcast, for example, could ask Netflix to give it more money for preferred status on its network, so that Stranger Things 3loads as fast as possible for viewers.
That cost presumably will be passed on to consumers. (We all knew Netflix for $10 a month was too good to be true, right?)
“If the net neutrality tenants are removed, we’re talking about really large carriers that will probably want to go back to certain companies that leverage the Internet to make a lot of money—more money than what the carriers are making—to get a slice of that pie,” DeKeersgieter said.
The end of net neutrality likely won’t significantly change the market for Internet service providers in Bloomington-Normal, said David Loomis, an economics professor at Illinois State University and executive director of its Institute for Regulatory Policy Studies. The residential market for high-speed Internet access is currently dominated by Comcast, with new fiber provider MetroNet now offering some competition.
Loomis said he doesn’t think local Internet service providers will have an incentive to move away from the net-neutrality principles in the short term, regardless of the FCC’s decision. One reason is the limited number of service providers in Bloomington-Normal, he said.
Another is that it’s difficult for regular Internet users to see what’s really going on with their service—if they’re being intentionally slowed (or “throttled”) or if speed issues are being caused by, say, a Netflix server outage. Only the Internet service provider (ISP) knows for sure. Economists call this problem “information asymmetry,” Loomis said.
“Even with this information asymmetry, (the) consumer would learn the difference over time and switch to a different ISP that does not violate the net neutrality rules,” he said. “However, since we have limited competition due to households having only one or two ISPs to choose from, we need government rules to take the place of what the competitive market would do if there were lots of choices.”
The FCC’s backtrack on net neutrality will shift regulatory oversight to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC has historically been a last-stop regulator and less proactive than the FCC, Loomis said. Consumers can bring complaints to the FTC, but Loomis again notes that may be difficult to even notice something’s wrong.
“That’s really hard for the average consumer to really know that. If providers do treat (certain traffic) unequally, it’ll be a long time before we know they’ve done it and see something in front of the FTC,” Loomis said.
A better long-term solution would be to revise federal law, rather than relying on FCC-level policymaking, Loomis said. The last major overhaul to federal telecommunications law was in 1996, he said, meaning we’re way overdue for an update that doesn’t flip-flop depending on who’s in the White House.
“If you want net-neutrality principles, you’ve got to write it into the law,” he said.
DeKeersgieter said this week’s FCC vote won’t impact CIRBN, which was created only after an Illinois State University team won a $17.6 million grant during the Obama administration to bring broadband access to rural communities. With larger providers focused on big cities, communities like Pontiac, Towanda, and Lexington still wouldn’t have fiber-optic Internet speeds had CIRBN not been created, said DeKeersgieter.
“We’re net-neutral now and would remain net-neutral in the future,” he said.
NPR’s Alina Selyukh contributed to this story.