Lawmakers seek to attach strings to rural Internet grants to ensure net neutrality

The state’s largest provider opposes the bill, saying the federal government has the proper authority to regulate the Internet

Lawmakers seek to attach strings to rural Internet grants to ensure net neutrality

About a quarter of homes in rural Colorado lack basic Internet, but under a proposed law, these homes would be among the first to get a net neutrality guarantee from Internet providers.

Democratic lawmakers want to prevent Internet companies from blocking or slowing down access to certain websites and online content. Proposed legislation also addresses “paid prioritization” by prohibiting providers like Comcast or CenturyLink from charging companies like Netflix more for speeding up their streaming services for users.

The bill would attach strings to state money used to build new Internet infrastructure — rather than applying these net neutrality principles to existing service. Over the next six years, about $150 million is expected to be available for telecom providers to connect homes in rural Colorado to the Internet. Next week, Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to sign a bill that would make some this money available next year.

Rep. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, a lead sponsor on the bill, said the state can control how its money is spent. This is one way for the state to regulate these companies without creating a conflict with federal laws that govern the Internet.

This comes after the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission repealed rules enacted under President Barack Obama barring telecom companies from slowing down or blocking certain websites. The dismantling of these rules drew protests from consumers across the country, including here in Colorado, due to concerns that Internet providers would create fast lanes on the Internet for companies willing to pay more.  

About two dozen states have introduced bills or resolutions seeking to maintain net neutrality, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. On March 5, Washington state became the first in the nation to sign a law that would prohibit Internet service providers from blocking websites or charging companies more for faster delivery.

Hansen said he supports this kind of statewide ban, but he has concerns about conflicts with federal laws. The Washington law is expected to end up in the courts, and a similar law in Colorado, he said, would likely invite a lawsuit.

He said the proposed law threads the needle for what regulatory authority the state has over these companies. Also, he said there may be a cascade effect where telecom providers just offer net-neutral service statewide.

CenturyLink, the state’s largest telecommunications provider, is opposed the bill.

Mark Soltes, a lobbyist for CenturyLink, told The Colorado Independent in an emailed statement that internet traffic is inherently interstate in nature and best handled at the federal level.

The company did not respond to a question for its position on net neutrality.

The proposed law would require companies to sign a contract committing to offer net-neutral service. If the Federal Trade Commission determines they are not following the contract, Colorado’s Attorney General could require the company to give the state money back.

The bill will be up for a vote in the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on April 11.

Title photo: Internet server. Photo by Victor Grigas via Flickr the Creative Commons.

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About the Author

John Herrick

John is covering the 2018 legislative session. Follow him on Twitter @herrickjohnny and email him at John@coloradoindependent.com.

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