Mayor Ron Nirenberg
Mayor Ron Nirenberg Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg signed onto a national resolution Sunday to support the restoration of net neutrality regulations, three months after the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal the so-called “open-internet” protections.

Mayors Bill de Blasio, Steve Adler, and Ted Wheeler – of New York City, Austin, and Portland, respectively – announced at a SXSW event Sunday that the mayors of 12 U.S. cities, including Nirenberg, have signed the Cities Open Internet Pledge.

The pledge calls on cities to support the maintenance of an open internet by doing business with internet service providers (ISPs), such as Spectrum, AT&T, Grande and Google Fiber locally, that honor net neutrality practices.

“A free internet is critical to preventing the digital divide from growing in San Antonio and around the nation,” Nirenberg said in a statement. “Americans of all economic levels must have unencumbered access to this essential tool.”

The pledge contains five other imperatives for cities committing to open-internet practices, including to ensure an open-internet connection in any free public Wi-Fi or municipally-provided internet, require notice of anti-net neutrality practices and levy penalties against providers that engage in them, and monitor ISPs so that consumers know which companies are violating open-internet principles.

Net neutrality, or the open internet, is the idea that ISPs should not block, throttle or prioritize certain internet content. Because many ISPs are owned by larger communications conglomerates that also create content, there is fear that companies will favor content created by those within its umbrella and restrict access to competitors’ content. The FCC adopted open internet rules in February 2015 and repealed them in December 2017.

Supported by many large ISPs, such as Verizon, AT&T, and Charter Communications, the repeal of net neutrality rules drew public backlash against many of those companies although Charter, for its part, says it supports an open internet. It opposes rules in the 2015 open internet order it claims are excessively prohibitive, according to a company blog post titled, “Why We Will Continue to Support an Open Internet.”

Asked for comment Monday, a spokesman for Charter Communications, which operates Spectrum internet, deferred to the blog post.

The company says it opposes outdated regulations it was subject to as part of the FCC’s Title II rules, which included net-neutrality protections.

“Our objection to Title II has never been about not wanting to provide our customers with an Open Internet,” the blog post reads. “Rather we have been concerned about its overly broad and vague prohibitions as well as the potential for rate regulation. By bringing its approach into the 21st century, the FCC is helping provide regulatory predictability so companies like Charter can be confident in making even greater investments in our broadband networks.”

The company argues certain provisions could limit its ability to peg rates to cost of service. That, in turn, would impede its investment in broadband internet infrastructure throughout the country, such as in rural communities and other areas with limited access to high-speed internet, the company says.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) is in Washington D.C. this week for the National League of Cities Conference, where net neutrality was among the topics civic leaders were discussing.

Pelaez, who chairs the Council’s new Innovation and Technology Committee, said cities such as San Antonio are starting to see access to high-speed and open internet as a public necessity.

“Cities have come to rely on an open internet in order to thrive,” he said. “That includes being able to hunt for jobs, look for housing, access resources that improve health care options, education options. Any ISP that will prioritize Netflix or video game apps over those things I just listed is an ISP with whom we don’t want to do business and which is not good for anybody.”

His constituents are more concerned with potholes in their neighborhoods and other infrastructure issues than they are with having access to an open internet, he said, but net neutrality is an issue Pelaez considers of utmost importance to San Antonians’ future quality of life.

The end of net neutrality regulations could adversely affect local businesses and services — not just technology-oriented ones, he said.

“Every single business in San Antonio, without exception, is reliant upon a robust internet that is open to everybody,” Pelaez said. “Innovation doesn’t just happen in the space of tech and [research and design]. Innovation happens at every level of our economy.”

Net neutrality is just one of many battles for control cities are having with state and federal government, he said, and the stripping of open internet regulations amounts to federal preemption of local government.

Pelaez said the cities that signed the pledge can use the “power of the city purse” to oppose any internet service providers not honoring open internet principles.

“When procuring internet service providers we will do so with only businesses that can prove they’re not throttling or blocking content on sites that we run or rely on to provide services,” he said.

DeAnne Cuellar helped found Upgrade San Antonio, a local civic tech initiative. Upgrade has advocated for net neutrality. She said she has been an open-internet advocate since 2005. Back then, Cuellar was part of a network of local organizers throughout the U.S. spearheading policy reform for open internet practices.

That work, in part, led to the “beautiful democratization” of the web consumers see today, she said. But in San Antonio, access to high-speed internet varies depending on where one lives, Cuellar said. And ending net neutrality would only serve to further the digital divide, she said.

“Without net neutrality rules, that would create all sorts of bottlenecks for living our lives,” she said. “At the end of the day the internet is a utility.

“All the things we love about the internet are things we should fight to protect today.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.