While many are watching what the Federal Communications Commission will do in its upcoming vote on net neutrality, local carriers predict Alaskans won't see much different in what's already an "open internet" policy.
Christine O'Connor, the executive director of the Alaska Telephone Association, said the rules of net neutrality over the past two years caused confusion among Alaska's nearly 20 large and small telecom member companies about what it was supposed to do.
"As far as net neutrality, I don't expect ATA's member companies' practices to change," O'Connor said. "The uncertainty of the existing rules has been a concern in the last couple years, so I think returning to the light touch regulatory status the Internet had until 2015 will be welcome to most members."
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has advocated for eliminating net neutrality in a vote Thursday, when the FCC will conduct an open commission meeting in Washington, D.C. Fourth on its list of agenda items was "Restoring Internet Freedom," which did not mention the words "net neutrality":
"The Commission will consider a Declaratory Ruling, Report and Order, and Order that will restore Internet Freedom by returning broadband Internet access service to its prior classification as an information service, and reinstate the private mobile service classification of mobile broadband Internet access service. The item also will eliminate the Commission's vague and expansive Internet Conduct Standard, along with the bright-line rules. Additionally, it will modify the transparency rule to promote additional transparency, while eliminating burdensome and unnecessary requirements."
But in plain language, Pai says he made this proposed rollback because current FCC rules have "depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation."
Pai vowed that "the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet" and to "simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that's best for them."
Complaints from groups and individuals say the move will yank consumer protections spelled out in 2015 and adopted by the FCC. The fear is that the internet would become a commodity in the hands of big companies rather than an open road traveled by consumers.
Their concern is that big telecoms can charge for faster internet services or charge fees for access to certain sites in an effort to steer markets, according to the National Consumer League, which issued testimony for the upcoming meeting Thursday.
For example, companies like GCI and Alaska Communication, two of the larger entities in this state, could use a multitiered system that limits lower-cost users from access to fast internet because they don't pay as much.
But GCI and Alaska Communications have pledged not to do that.
"GCI customers won't experience a change," said spokeswoman Heather Handyside. "GCI has never wavered in our belief that customers should be in control of their own internet experience. We've adhered to that philosophy for more than two decades — long before the 2015 Net Neutrality order — and we will continue to adhere to that belief regardless of any decision made in Washington, D.C."
GCI contends that, on the principal of "open internet," it doesn't "block, prevent or otherwise impair our customers' freedom to direct their own online activity. This is a commitment we stand by unequivocally. And that will not change," Handyside said.
Alaska Communications spokeswoman Heather Cavanaugh said "nothing is changing in the foreseeable future for our company or our customers as a result of this pending policy change."
She said the company believes good public policy encourages innovation, investment, and allows free market principles to work.
"Alaska Communications does not prioritize or discriminate against common Internet traffic regardless of source, destination or type except as required for network management," she wrote in an email.
But could there be changes?
Cavanaugh said that while the company doesn't "speculate on pending regulation, we do not anticipate changing our practice of not prioritizing or discriminating against common Internet traffic."
One of the key questions posed prior to passing the so-called net neutrality FCC order was this: Who regulates the internet?
In 2015, under President Barack Obama, the FCC passed the open internet order, which treated the regulation of broadband as a utility, similar to electricity or gas companies that go before regulatory bodies to justify and ask permission for raising rates on their customers.
But unlike utilities, no agency was in charge of regulating the rates charged by internet providers. Until net neutrality, the FCC had not stepped up to take a position, O'Connor said.
Among other rules, companies were officially banned from offering tiered services — fast and slow lanes for different service in an attempt to preserve "net neutrality" — the principle that all traffic online should be treated equally. An ombudsman was even established by the FCC to police complaints about net neutrality.
O'Connor said the discussion in Alaska has continued somewhat in requests to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska as the logical body to hold telecoms to some level of accountability over internet services provided to customers. But the FCC has asserted its jurisdiction over internet matters just as it is the commission that allocates federal subsidies. Yet, there remains a gray area where the RCA retains some jurisdiction of its own, and there are plenty of questions, O'Connor said.
One request was for a legislative report to be completed by the RCA by Dec. 1, inserted in the 2018 budget in late June by Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks. He wanted the RCA to document broadband coverage gaps in Alaska to provide the Legislature with information.
But a major aspect of the problem, for Alaskans at least, "is that you have to have internet in order to care about net neutrality," Guttenberg said Nov. 28. He has contended that though Alaska's telecoms share in billions of federal subsidy dollars, broadband services aren't universally available in Alaska.
"There are huge gaps and holes in Alaska broadband availability in certain areas of the state," Guttenberg said. "More than $200 million comes to Alaska in Universal Services Fund subsidies each year. But in my area (Fairbanks) it's a broken system."
"If it's gotten this far, odds are it's going to pass," Guttenberg predicted of net neutrality repeal earlier this month. "But in Alaska things are different on that topic because you have to have internet before you can care about whether or not there's net neutrality."
Equal access to the internet hasn't been achieved by Alaskans, he argues, and Guttenberg points out that Pai is no stranger to Alaska's broadband problems.
Pai has taken extensive enough tours in Alaska to claim broad knowledge. When he wrote his dissenting opinion about the Alaska Plan — which will pour $1.5 billion into Alaska telecom projects between 2016 and 2026 — he had this to say:
"I have seen firsthand what broadband means for Alaska. I have toured the Arctic Regional Supercomputing Center in Fairbanks. I have touched the fiber optic cables that have brought high-speed Internet access and economic growth to the Mat-Su Valley. I have spoken with the board of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium about how telehealth allows the Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage to connect native Alaskans statewide.
"I have heard what broadband means to the Gwitchyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribal Government and have seen what it's meant for Tatitlek, a traditional Alutiiq coastal village. And I have met patrons of the Tuzzy Library and students at the Ilisagvik Tribal College in Barrow, 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, about how the Internet has helped keep tribal communities informed and intact."
But he argued that Alaska's broadband problem wouldn't be solved by the Alaska Plan because there were too many middle mile gaps in services between broadly scattered communities.