JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The efforts to progress the expansion of high-speed internet to rural areas continues to be a topic of discussion in Missouri while the nation’s lawmakers continue debating net neutrality regulations.
The issue of broadband expansion has been one that has been increasingly discussed more and more at the federal level, as the net neutrality subject once again rises in Washington. At the center of the debate is not so much whether to support net neutrality regulations so much as what kind of regulation should be used.
FCC Chairman and Trump appointee Ajit Pai put forth a plan back in May to overturn the rules set forth in 2015 under the Obama administration, calling them overly burdensome. He says the regulations are hindering infrastructure development and seeks to have broadband returned to a framework under Title I of the Communications Act, which would classify it as an information service. The regulations established in 2015 put it under Title II as a utility.
One supporting group, Broadband for America, has been advocating for the change to a Title I, saying net neutrality without “excessive regulation” had been the norm for the two decades prior to the 2015 decision to regulate the internet under Title II. They contend that the Title II designation is harmful and a threat to investments in broadband infrastructure, and there’s a number of analysts and experts that seem to share that opinion.
An analysis from the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies shows, “the threat of reclassification reduced telecommunications investment by about 20 percent to 30 percent or about $30 to $40 billion annually.”
In 2010, industry analyst Craig Moffett said that Title II regulation would have “a profoundly negative impact on capital investment,” while Frank Louthan of Raymond James Financial was quoted as saying that Title II is restricting overall investment and returns and that they “do not believe it will make the industry as attractive to capital as it had been in the past.”
Tom Wheeler, the former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, also recognized the tradeoff between Title II and investment, observing a need to “balance the goals of openness with the needs of network operators to receive a return on their investment.’’
It’s a move that has earned support from a number of legislators, including Missouri’s Sen. Blunt and Lt. Gov. Mike Parson, both of whom believe that changing the way broadband is regulated will allow companies to increase the infrastructure needed to expand those services to rural areas.
Speaking on the U.S. Senate floor earlier this month, Senator Roy Blunt recognized August as “Rural Broadband Month,” highlighting the importance of expanding broadband internet to rural communities and saying it would benefit businesses as well as farmers and ranchers.
“It’s necessary to retain business from banks, from factories, from distribution centers to small businesses. It’s necessary to start and maintain a business, large or small. If that business is going to compete outside the local marketplace, you have to have that connectedness,” Blunt said. “A revolution is taking place in agriculture. The great food-producing economy that we have produces more food all the time. Agriculture uses wireless infrastructure, it uses data, the G. P. S. structure to decide what should happen in a field at a given time in the field, data centers, and autonomous systems.”
But he also said that expanding broadband would greatly increase the opportunities for better education and healthcare.
“It’s certainly critical for schools and libraries. Just today, a parent was telling me, you know, you really can’t do the homework anymore unless you can get access somewhere close to where you live… Students depend on the internet for education and opportunity where we live today,” he said. “Health care, rural hospitals, and health clinics are able to use telemedicine to bring services at a level that otherwise would not be available. … You bring all of the resources that may be available hundreds of miles away right there to the point where questions are asked, information is handled, and suddenly somebody’s life is saved because you had the capacity to have that kind of communication.”
Benjamin Peters was a reporter for The Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine and also produced the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined The Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield.