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Waiting for details

Local rural telecommunications cooperatives that provide internet service to their customers are waiting for more information on a planned repeal of "net neutrality" laws that have been in place since 2015, according to David Crothers, executive director of the North Dakota Association of Telecommunications Cooperatives.

"Everybody paints it as black or white," he said. "For the smaller companies, it comes down to where you exchange data. It's more the subtleties of the rules."

Under current net neutrality rules, all data must move through the internet with equal priority. On Dec. 14, the Federal Communications Commission will consider a rule change repealing those regulations allowing internet providers to slow some data while charging a fee to move other content through the system at higher speeds.

For example, an internet provider could charge its customers extra to access a particular website or services such as Facebook or Netflix. The internet providers could also charge the content companies, such as Facebook or Netflix, to allow the content to reach the consumer's home at a useable rate of speed.

There is also a concern an internet provider could block or slow content based on subject matter or political philosophy.

Internet providers would be required to inform customers of any policy it has regarding slowing or blocking content.

Ajit Pai, FCC chairman appointed to that position by President Donald Trump, introduced the repeal of net neutrality as the Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Trump has also appointed Brendan Carr and Jessica Roseworcel to the five-member commission. Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael O'Rielly were appointed by President Barack Obama.

In a statement issued Nov. 21, Pai said his intent was to return to a "light-touch" regulatory approach that had governed internet operations prior to 2015.

On Nov. 22, Clyburn issued a statement that said repealing net neutrality "Increases uncertainty for consumers, ensuring that broadband providers could block or throttle (slow content transmission) at a whim."

Local internet providers don't intend to utilize the freedom to charge extra for priority content.

"We support the net neutrality principle that internet providers should not block or limit data," said Keith Larson, CEO of Dakota Central. "We plan to continue those principles."

However, local internet providers can't control what other companies do. Crothers said that even under the simplest of examples, information can pass through four or five internet companies as it moves through the web.

"Maybe some of the guys in the middle could limit data," Larson said. "We don't plan on doing that."

On the other hand, payments from internet content providers to local service providers could help cover local costs, Crothers said.

Currently, internet content providers such as Netflix, Google, Facebook or Amazon do not make any payments to the service providers for delivering content to the end user.

"Our position is those that use the networks, should contribute to the networks," Crothers said.

That becomes more difficult the smaller the internet service provider.

"The small companies don't have the power to negotiate with a company like Netflix," he said. "I think it would serve North Dakota companies best if there were a light regulatory touch. "Someplace to go if the big companies abuse their power."

The big internet content providers produce most of the web's traffic. As an example, about 60 percent of the internet traffic between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. in North Dakota is Netflix movies, Crothers said.

"Netflix doesn't pay a penny for those connections (into the consumer's home)," he said.

The current effort to repeal net neutrality regulations is opposed by the big internet content providers including Netflix, Google and Facebook, Crothers said.

"This is about the big ISPs (internet service providers) being able to do what they want," he said, referring to companies such as Comcast and AT&T.

On the other hand, Crothers said some regulations that allow local internet service providers to charge the companies that provide content could help local providers cover the cost of improvements to the network.

"It is difficult to invest in infrastructure when the users don't pay anything towards it," he said.

Crothers also sees the need to provide service to customers.

"We are internet service providers," Crothers said. "It would be the furthest thing from reality for us to shut down content."

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said changes in the regulations could increase investments in internet infrastructure.

"I support an open and accessible internet, which are the concepts of net neutrality, but the problem with classifying internet service providers under an outdated and overreaching framework is that it stifles investment and innovation," he said, in an emailed statement. "The FCC's proposed order will give Congress, the FTC and FCC the opportunity to work in a bipartisan, transparent fashion to update our communications policies to ensure the Internet remains open, continues to attract investment, promotes competition and drives innovation."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., expressed concern over access in rural areas.

"I'm very concerned about the FCC's plan to repeal net neutrality rules that protect basic fairness on the internet," Heitkamp said, in an emailed statement. "Net neutrality protects free speech, fair competition and consumer choice. If large internet service providers are able to dictate what content you see or which websites to block or promote, North Dakota consumers and small businesses — especially in rural areas — lose out. Every day I come to work in the U.S. Senate I fight for rural America, and the repeal of net neutrality is a big worry for North Dakota's rural communities."

The FCC vote on the Restoring Internet Freedom Order is scheduled for Dec. 14. The rule would become effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register unless challenged in court.

"Until the order is adopted and we know what's in it, we wait and see," Crothers said.

And the FCC vote may not be the last word on the issue of net neutrality.

"Another dimension to this is the rule change may start a change in legislation in motion," Crothers said. "Nobody wants to allow discrimination."