Thursday’s 3-2 vote by the Federal Communication Commission to regulate broadband Internet service as a utility is being hailed in the social media universe as a landmark ruling in defense of consumers facing big telecoms and cable companies. While the proposed rules will prevent content blocking and market manipulation, the ruling won’t do anything to slow the building monopoly of who controls the fiber networks and infrastructure that represent the backbone of the system.
Here is my list of what everyone in San Antonio should know about Thursday’s ruling in favor of net neutrality and other related issues:
1. The ruling effects mobile data, too, not just landlines. That means service to smart phones and tablets also will be regulated.
2. Service providers must find ways to equitably offer high-speed broadband in rural areas, which should cheer up a lot of people in the Hill Country and deep South and West Texas, where landline telephone services were first made available more than 75 years ago under the same kind of regulation, using telecom activity in the cities to subsidize service to small towns, farms and ranches in rural America.
3. Nothing is going to change for the time being. The FCC ruling will certainly face legal challenges from the big internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner. The Republicans in Congress oppose FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s drive to regulate broadband Internet service under out-of-date telecommunications laws and regulations. They have a point. While many people correctly see net neutrality as David vs. Goliath, it’s also true that the FCC is using 20th century telecommunications regulations to oversee 21st century Internet service providers. There are bound to be unintended consequences. A good comparison is the City of San Antonio using regulations written for the taxi industry to regulate rideshare companies. In both Washington and here, government is running so far behind the marketplace, its choice of regulatory tools are woefully dated and inadequate. Expect court battles and prolonged partisan legislative fights.
4. Telecommunications giants AT&T and Verizon and cable giants Comcast and Time Warner have spent tens of billions of dollars each laying fiber networks and building infrastructure in urban America. For all the talk, Google Fiber exists today in only three cities. Legacy companies control what most of us pay for Internet service and whether our neighborhoods receive true high-speed broadband. They will control what we pay going forward.
5. It’s been more than one year since Comcast cut a deal to acquire Time Warner, a merger that would give a single company control of nearly 60% of the broadband Internet service market. There is no certainty the merger is going to happen. Even if it doesn’t, consumers who want high-speed broadband will find very few choices in the marketplace. Streaming has proven to be a game changer in the way consumers access on-demand content like cable television series, feature films, and music, but no such breakthrough has occurred or is likely to occur soon in the realm of how we get on the Web. Get busy, Geekdom.
6. Nothing in your personal life is going to change. I’ve lived in three different near-downtown neighborhoods over the last seven years and residents in all three still cannot get access the kind of high-speed service available in the suburbs. The promises that such service is just around the corner have been made for years by the marketing folks at AT&T and Time Warner in San Antonio, but talk to technicians installing cable and climbing up the poles and you’ll be told otherwise. It’s even worse for residents living in socio-economically challenged urban zones.
7. San Antonio has been obsessed with the quest to become a Google Fiber city. Perhaps some day, but there is a long line and we are standing closer to the back than the front. Google doesn’t come unless its demands are met. Read the GigaOm story in the above link for more detail. What about GigaFiber, AT&T’s service meant to counter Google? It’s already in Kansas City and Austin, both Google Fiber cities. San Antonio has been designated a GigaFiber city, but so far, it’s been a sunny headline with no evidence of its arrival on the horizon. History suggests if it’s coming, it will happen later than we like and only after other cities see the service first.
8. One technology consultant I know who works for AT&T explained to me how the telecommunications giant wants to deploy hundreds of microcells around the city atop buildings to create an integrated, truly high-speed wireless network. This approach reflects the changing technology available to build such a network, but it also means a loss of revenue for city officials who want to lease out space on antennas and rooftops. The result: The city is not moving forward, at least not at what you’d call measurable high-speed.
9. Local government – the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and the school districts – is still structured for the landline and fax machine universe of the last century. There is no single entity led by tech-savvy managers and innovators devising and driving new technology strategies in San Antonio. As a result, the status of certain projects and who is leading the charge is never quite clear, and the city, county and school districts are not acting in concert. Net neutrality is one thing. Equal access to technology in the broader sense – computer labs in middle schools, coding classes in high school, and reading tablets in school libraries – is another thing. It should be an economic development imperative, a social justice commitment and an essential element in our education strategies. San Antonio is badly in need of a summit where the best minds in the private and public sector come together to identify the challenges and the opportunities in a world where smart cities that compete the most aggressively prove to be the winners. Net neutrality is important, but there is a lot more to it. The next elected mayor and City Council will have to rise to the occasion.
*Featured/top image: On July 23, 2014, hundreds of Free Press activists, allies and volunteers rallied for REAL Net Neutrality on President Obama’s motorcade route as he attended a big fundraiser in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Photo by Stacie Isabella Turk/Ribbonhead via Flickr.