Decisions made by the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., may feel remote, but Rogue Valley internet service providers say that local residents should be paying attention, too.
Jim Teece, president and CEO of Ashland Home Net, is one of them. He said the current national debate over network neutrality is a chance for internet users to reconsider their understanding of a tool they depend on daily for an increasing amount of tasks.
"It's important that we do a check-in with ourselves and ask, what are our own thoughts about these kind of utilities?" he said.
Net neutrality returned to the national spotlight after FCC Chair Ajit Pai unveiled plans to roll back regulations on internet service providers. The regulations, which were put in place during Barack Obama's presidency, preserve broad access to the internet by requiring that service providers treat all websites and consumers the same in terms of speed and access.
If the regulations are overturned, ISPs potentially could make the internet "tiered" by providing some websites with intentionally faster load times than others. Concerns about deregulation usually center on the possibility of ISPs prioritizing bandwidth for sites that they own or have a vested interest in. Websites might have to start paying ISPs to compete online.
For example, Comcast, the largest telecommunications conglomerate in the world, owns both internet service provider Xfinity and broadcast network NBC. Without the regulations that are in place, Xfinity could potentially provide its customers NBC's content more quickly than a competing network's.
Even if an ISP doesn't own a media company, it would still have the freedom to charge royalties from websites, which could restrict consumer access to the sites that wouldn't pay or tack on additional fees to use the ones that do pay.
If implemented, the FCC proposal and companies' reactions will impact local markets across the nation: 88 percent of Americans were using the internet in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center.
In the Rogue Valley, where ISPs range from Charter Communications' brand Spectrum to small providers such as Teece's company, businesses with a stake in the game are paying close attention.
Teece, who has helped expand high-speed internet access particularly in rural pockets of the Rogue Valley, has followed the progress of internet regulation since before the topic garnered much attention among the general public. Although national stories have been largely politically framed — one president's FCC appointees versus another — Teece believes the issue is not inherently partisan. Rather, he said, it highlights fundamental differences in how people perceive the internet.
He suggested that people consider their internet use the way they do other publicly-owned utilities.
"We all pay for what we use," Teece said. "If we use more electricity, we pay more. If we use more water, we pay more. But the internet doesn’t work that way."
Even though internet connections are intangible, they require hardware and infrastructure. Teece noted that companies are dealing with a growing demand for bandwidth, largely as a result of increasing use of high-quality video streaming services such as Netflix. This, he said, has in turn required internet providers to bulk up their infrastructure to support such content.
Charlie McHenry, a former councilor with the Oregon Telecommunications Forum who also worked in expanding internet access, said he thinks inequity of offerings is unavoidable if the regulations are rolled back.
"I have the impression that in this economy, given the power of corporate America, that it’s an inevitability that the internet will become tiered," McHenry said. "Jim [Teece] is right: we don’t know that, and a lot of the major ISPs and happily some of our local ISPs have said they won’t do that. But in a competitive environment, if everyone else is adopting a model, it’s kind of hard to be the only guys out."
Local ISPs, including Ashland Home Net and Talent-based Infostructure, are saying so far that they won't adjust their offerings even if the FCC does eliminate the Obama-era regulations.
"Regardless of that outcome, Infostructure has no intention of limiting anyone’s bandwidth to any sites," said David Seely, a network engineer and head of support.
Teece said whatever the outcome is, all internet users would benefit from knowing the status of the service they depend on.
"I think that’s human nature: We take for granted the things that run in the background," he said. "When it’s news, that’s when we get involved."