Effort to leverage rural Internet grant money to ensure net neutrality fails

This story was updated on April 24 to include a vote by the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs. The committee voted down the proposed legislation. 

Democratic lawmakers made an attempt this session to ensure rural Colorado, where about a quarter of homes still lack basic Internet, would be the first to get a net neutrality guarantee from Internet providers. 

But on Monday, the same day a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission repealing Obama-era net neutrality rules mostly took effect, Republicans on the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee voted down a proposed net neutrality bill 3-2. Cable and technology companies voiced opposition to the bill, saying this type of regulation should come from the federal government, not the state.

Democrats wanted to prevent Internet companies from blocking or slowing down access to certain websites and online content. The proposed legislation would have also addressed “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 have attached 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.

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This comes after the Republican-led FCC repealed rules enacted under President Barack Obama barring telecom companies from slowing down or blocking certain websites.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 threaded 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, 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 have required companies to sign a contract committing to offer net-neutral service. If the Federal Trade Commission determined they did not follow the contract, Colorado’s Attorney General would have been able to require the company to give the state money back.

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