FCC repeal of net neutrality would hurt Vermont companies

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WASHINGTON — The web is vital to Art Bell's film company, Dreamlike Pictures.

From Bell's base in Burlington, he frequently works with clients and video production partners across the country.

"We routinely move gigabytes, many hundreds of gigabytes, around the internet," Bell said.

But an upcoming Federal Communications Commission vote could have profound implications for his work. Bell fears that a repeal of regulations put in place during the Obama administration will alter the internet and severely hinder his work.

"We'd probably be out of business," Bell said.

Late next week, the FCC is expected to vote on a proposal from commission chair Ajit Pai that would also transfer oversight of internet service providers to the Federal Trade Commission.

Bell is among many Vermonters and public officials concerned about what a potential change in federal regulations could mean for internet users across the country, particularly in rural areas.

So-called net neutrality rules put in place under the Obama administration give consumers free and ready access to all content on the internet. If net neutrality rules are repealed, internet service providers could block or favor particular products or websites.

Opponents of the change say new rules could allow internet service providers to charge tolls for access to websites or slow down service to small online companies, news organizations and citizens groups.

All three members of Vermont's congressional delegation have come out against Pai's proposal. The Scott administration voiced support for net neutrality regulations. And Vermont businesses that rely on the web are watching with apprehension about what changes would mean for them.

In announcing his proposal, Pai characterized the rules enacted during the Obama administration as "heavy handed."

"Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the Internet," Pai said in a statement last month. "Instead, the FCC would simply require Internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that's best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate."

Supporters of Pai's proposal include major internet service providers, such as Comcast.

In a November blog post, Comcast executive David Cohen applauded Pai's proposal to "repeal the ill-advised and outdated burden" of regulations the FCC adopted in 2015, which, they say, "harmed broadband investment and innovation."

The company vowed to maintain customers' experience, however, promising that they "will not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content."

If the FCC approves Pai's proposal, it would mark a shift in how the internet functions, according to Jeremy Hansen, an associate professor of computer science at Norwich University.

"It's a fundamental change in the way that the internet has been operated and the way that it's been treated in the past," Hansen said Tuesday.

Changing the regulations would give providers more control over the content, he said. Companies could potentially favor certain websites over others by making connections to some services faster than others, for instance.

Net neutrality is one of several reasons Hansen, a Berlin select board member, is currently pitching a proposal to create a central Vermont regional internet service provider.

According to Hansen, Berlin and Middlesex will be putting the question before voters on Town Meeting Day. He has been reaching out to other towns as well.

"This really highlights the importance of having local options for internet service," he said.

Lawmakers, experts and business-owners say rural areas could be particularly hard hit by a change in the federal rules.

The issue is a concern for Vermont retailers who do business online.

Cabot Orton, the proprietor of the Vermont Country Store, spoke in favor of net neutrality at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., hosted in Vermont in 2014.

Orton said that online sales have become a key part of the business. About 40 percent of Vermont Country Store sales are online, he told lawmakers.

Orton continues to be a proponent of net neutrality.

"It's no coincidence that small business has flourished while the internet has been a level playing field for businesses of every size," Orton said this week. "The only ones who win by eliminating net neutrality will be cable companies and internet service providers who will charge us all more. It doesn't take an MBA to know that's just not good business."

Michael Schirling, Vermont Secretary of Commerce and Community Development, said the agency is opposed to "any proposed changes that pull back from net neutrality."

Schirling said the Scott administration has not yet analyzed how businesses will be impacted, but they are closely watching the proceedings and will determine "whether it will be necessary to take action" to protect access.

"Maintaining open and unrestricted access to the value and economic opportunity the internet offers is essential," Schirling said.

Leahy, a longtime proponent of the Obama-era net neutrality rules, said this week that the plan to repeal the current policies is "dangerously radical."

People and businesses in rural parts of the country "stand to lose the most" from the change, Leahy said.

"Without these rules, small businesses in Vermont that successfully compete against some of the biggest companies in the world could see their access to customers limited or even blocked by big and well-funded competitors who can afford to shut them out," he said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., charged in a statement this week that with the FCC proposal, the Trump administration is siding "with big money and against democracy."

"It means that the Internet will be for sale to the highest bidder, instead of everyone having the same access regardless of whether they are rich or poor, a big corporation or a small business, a multi-media conglomerate or a small on-line publication," Sanders said.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has also criticized the proposal.

"This proposal is a wholesale abandonment of the FCC's core responsibility to protect the interests of consumers and an early Christmas present to big telecom companies, who will be able to pick and choose who gets access to the internet and at what speed," Welch said.

Bell, of Dreamlike Pictures, said that if the FCC proceeds with Pai's proposal later this month, he doesn't expect to see changes take place immediately. There will likely be court appeals, he said.

But if net neutrality policies change, he expects internet users' experience online will shift.

"We have yet to see how ad-driven and how spammy in the internet can be," Bell said.

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