The Loss of Net Neutrality is Devastating for Rural South Dakota.
I spent time in December meeting with the CEO of a South Dakota telecommunications cooperative, discussing our shared vision for how rural broadband can lead the way to enhanced economic development in rural South Dakota. Broadband holds incredible potential for rural South Dakota development, allowing local entrepreneurs to market worldwide, creating new opportunities for rural South Dakota communities to serve as the sites of businesses that transact around the world, enhancing telemedicine, and allowing telecommuting in all sorts of industries as never before.
But there is at least one emerging roadblock. I have spoken at length about how Washington seems to be conducting, intentionally or otherwise, what amounts to a War on Rural America. Another chilling example of this is its efforts to eliminate Net Neutrality, the principle that internet service providers treat all content equally and not give preference to internet giants which provide digital content. Under this principle, a user can load every web site or video equally, regardless of where the content is hosted.
In December, the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] voted 3-2 to dismantle the Net Neutrality rules that were established in 2015 after widespread organizing and protests by those who advocate for a free internet. These rules required internet service providers to treat all web content equally and neither block nor prioritize some content over other content in exchange for payment. The FCC decision to repeal that rule means that the federal government will no longer regulate high-speed internet as a public utility, like phone service. The effort to eliminate net neutrality, sadly supported by our congressional delegation, is a blow to rural South Dakota, particularly because rural residents have fewer choices of internet service providers. Less competition equals higher prices.
The FCC decision was widely unpopular – more than 20 million Americans had submitted comments to the FCC opposing the change. The reason there are so few service providers is that government has essentially granted those that exist monopolies in exchange for providing universal service. But the FCC vote removes their duty to provide universal service. It treats a provider like an information provider rather than a communications provider, a characterization that inaccurately captures how we think about and treat the internet today.
Dismantling Net Neutrality will have far-reaching impacts across America, but the FCC action is a particularly powerful blow to rural America. After a decade of public investment in broadband – as rural America stands on the brink of unleashing the potential of the digital age for its citizens – this action threatens to undermine that investment. It is another example of Washington – and our own congressional delegation – turning their backs to us.
Places like South Dakota already face tough challenges concerning broadband infrastructure. Unlike urban areas, which have, because of population density seen robust investment in infrastructure and growth, the opposite has been true in states like ours. In 2016, 39 percent of rural communities lacked access to true broadband — defined as a minimum download speed of 25 Mbps — even though it is present throughout urban America. In fact, nearly 11 million American households lack any access at all to broadband, and over 45 million non-urban households have a single provider offering wired 25 Mbps speeds.
South Dakota has not shared the economic growth so much of the rest of America has experienced over the past eight years. The data shows that poor broadband equals lower population growth, weaker economic development, fewer education opportunities, lower property values, and declining home sales. Good broadband, on the other hand, is a conduit to the rest of the American economy and a shield against economic isolation that too often comes with geographic isolation.
With good broadband, people can telecommute; they can practice telemedicine, connecting patients with specialists across the nation; they can develop micro companies on the Dakota plains, use the best technological resources in agribusiness, and generally compete on a much more level playing field with the rest of the international market in a host of innovative ways. Not surprisingly, entrepreneurship soars with it. Fast broadband removes much of the impediment of geographical remoteness in rural areas.
Broadband’s potential is limitless. Except for this: ending net neutrality will also likely end the promise of rural South Dakota overcoming its geographic and economic isolation and destroy the hope of the economic promise broadband technology holds.
This issue is not over. Congress has the power to undo what the FCC just did under the Congressional Review Act. It should exercise that authority to pass what’s known as a “resolution of disapproval” to overturn the FCC’s regulatory vote. You can be heard by calling our congressional delegation and urge them to reverse the FCC’s Net Neutrality-killing vote. While new legislation statutorily imposing Net Neutrality is also a possibility, the likelihood is that any new legislation fail to include the favorable rules of the Net Neutrality policy the FCC just repealed.
We need an advocate for South Dakota. I will fight in Washington to restore the principles of Net Neutrality.