Area voice strong for net neutrality

The Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado are making their voices heard in no uncertain terms in the fierce debate over net neutrality, with public comments to the Federal Communication Commission registering at a rate 48 percent higher than the national average, according to an analysis by BizWest.

From the six largest local cities – Fort Collins, Boulder, Greeley, Longmont, Loveland and Broomfield – one comment has been filed with the FCC for every 192 residents. That’s roughly one half of 1 percent of the population.

That might not seem significant until you consider the ratio is one comment for every 286 people nationally. In Denver, it’s one in 235 and in Colorado Springs it’s one in 423. In the tech mecca of San Francisco, it’s one in 132.

Boulder’s ratio is one comment per 82 residents, with Fort Collins (1/205) and Longmont (1/207) also weighing in heavily.

Good luck finding someone who is on the side of the Internet service providers. Almost all of the comments favor rules that would prevent ISPs from charging content providers for so-called fast lanes to ensure their traffic arrives to consumers efficiently.

It’s not just individuals who are raising their voices locally. Broomfield-based Level 3 Communications Inc. (NYSE: LVLT), one of the nation’s largest Internet backbone providers, has long been a major force in the debate in Washington as well.

Perhaps it’s not surprising given the thriving startup economies in Boulder County and Fort Collins. Net neutrality is the notion that ISPs should treat all Internet traffic equally. The tech community, from large companies such as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) to small startups, has been a major net-neutrality advocate, arguing that an open Internet is essential to the success of innovation.

“I’m a serial entrepreneur in the software and genetics spaces,” Boulder resident Nick Hofmeister wrote in a letter to the FCC. “The only reason to end net neutrality is if you believe Comcast and friends have a better idea of the advancement of humanity than humanity does itself. … Grow a backbone, and keep the net neutral.”

Some have gone so far as to suggest that the FCC should go beyond basic rules and regulate the Internet as a utility much as it does phone lines or the wireless spectrum.

But ISPs, including Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA), believe giving government that large a role is a bad idea because they say it will dry up private investment in broadband upgrades nationally, leaving government to foot the bill to continue expansion and slowing innovation. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association has been a major supporter of the ISPs in the debate, and echoes many of the same sentiments.

“A wide array of financial analysts and industry observers have reached the same conclusion, arguing emphatically that the threat of Title II reclassification would damage broadband providers, discourage infrastructure investment, stifle job growth, and harm consumers,” the NCTA wrote to the FCC. “Indeed, in other contexts where the government has imposed public utility-style regulation, such an approach has led to chronic underinvestment in basic infrastructure.”

The battle over net neutrality, ongoing for several years, was thrust into the public spotlight in January when a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling struck down FCC rules on net neutrality from 2010, stating that the FCC overstepped its authority in barring ISPs from slowing selected Web traffic.

The FCC responded by proposing a new set of rules in May that would allow ISPs to arrange some “commercially reasonable” deals in which content providers could pay ISPs for preferential treatment of their traffic. The FCC has an open comment period that runs through Sept. 10, with more than 1.1 million comments from the public filed so far. No date for a vote by the commission on finalized rules has been set.

Net-neutrality advocates maintain that if large companies can afford to pay ISPs’ fees for faster access to their customers, then smaller competitors or startups that can’t afford to pay are at a competitive disadvantage, possibly stifling innovative new products and services from ever gaining a foothold in the market.

Consumer advocates also argue, meanwhile, that the notion of Internet fast lanes would be a disaster for the general public, with ISPs getting to play favorites with the content available to consumers. Large Internet companies such as Google, Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) and Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN), meanwhile, have said the fast lanes would allow ISPs to unfairly favor their own competing services unless those companies paid up.

“I use the Internet as my sole source of news and to create teachable moments for my child,” Fort Collins resident Dianne Tjalkens wrote to the FCC. “When she wants to know what a lemur looks like, or what henna is made of or where it is popular, I can look up this information. What time is the movie playing? Where is the closest pizza place? How do I get to the airport? What do CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have to say about the latest school shooting (I don’t have TV – can’t afford cable)? Simple access to all of the Internet makes my life easier and makes me a more informed citizen.”

But ISPs argue that the robustness of the Internet today is largely attributable to the incentive they’ve had all along, and would continue to have, to keep improving service.

“Consumers today obtain broadband Internet-access service from cable companies, telephone companies, wireless companies and even satellite companies,” Comcast wrote to the FCC in July. “The vast increase in speeds and the growing choice among providers flow directly from the willingness of broadband providers to invest and innovate.”

Level 3, which provides a wide range of Internet services, including long-haul broadband infrastructure between local networks, has been a staunch supporter of net neutrality.

A Sunlight Foundation report in May found that from 2005 to 2013 Level 3 had mentioned net neutrality in lobbying reports more than any lobbying organization that supports the idea except for AOL. However, Verizon (NYSE: VZ), AT&T (NYSE: T), Comcast and the NCTA all had weighed in more than either of those companies on the opposite side of the debate.

Level 3 argues that the debate isn’t just about ISPs treating all traffic equally within their own networks, but also at interconnection points into their networks since often geographic areas have only one option for local broadband service.

“Network neutrality is as much what happens on the edge of networks where they interconnect as it is within networks,” said Mark Taylor, vice president for content and media for Level 3.

If ISPs get their way, Taylor said companies such as Level 3 might have to start paying the ISPs to ensure their customers’ traffic is delivered to end users efficiently. Level 3 argues that if traffic is getting bogged down at interconnection points, the local ISPs and backbone providers should have a mutual responsibility to increase bandwidth to accommodate the increases in traffic.

While Level 3 revenue might well rise if it passed on the cost of interconnection fees to its customers, Taylor said he believes that’s a path toward slowed growth and reduced usefulness of the Internet.

“I don’t think long-term that’s helpful to the business as a whole,” he said.

Joshua Lindenstein can be reached at 303-630-1943, 970-416-7343 or jlindenstein@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joshlindenstein.

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