The effect on Albemarle County of a U.S. appeals court decision that allows internet service to be considered a utility is still unclear, a county official said.
The decision, handed down Tuesday, also supported the concept of net neutrality, the idea that providers may not offer faster service to high-paying customers or kneecap the internet speeds of rival companies.
As the county drafts a broadband internet expansion plan this summer, staff will follow the court’s actions closely, said Mike Culp, Albemarle’s director of information technology.
“A lot would have to happen before we see any big benefit,” he said. “For me, it is too soon to tell if that ruling … will have an impact on broadband in Albemarle directly.”
The plan seeks telecommunications funds from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and is due Sept. 30, Culp said.
Though Tuesday’s decision upholds rules set by the Federal Communication Commission and earlier court decisions on the issue, big providers plan to take an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a National Public Radio story.
Until the higher court makes a decision, the county will continue to monitor the rulings, Culp said.
“One of the discussion items we had is that AT&T and the others have the ability to appeal,” he said. “We definitely are considering that as things move forward.”
Jane Dittmar, a Democrat and former Albemarle County supervisor running for Virginia’s 5th Congressional District seat, sees the ruling as a boon for rural internet expansion.
“The acceptance that it is a utility, a common good, is important,” she said. “Now it is about going and getting the money to do this.”
If elected, Dittmar said she would work to use grants from the FCC designed to expand broadband to rural areas, where the cost of installing infrastructure often hampers progress.
The funds could benefit most of the 5th District, Dittmar said. The district spans from Front Royal to Danville and encompasses much of the Charlottesville area.
Republican state Sen. Tom Garrett, Dittmar’s opponent, called the ruling “another example of overreach by the federal government.”
“Telephones and electricity are already classified as a public utility, but we still pay the bill on those items each month, not the government,” said Garrett. “My opponent thinks this ruling justifies massive government expansion into the private sector but has done little to explain the billions in tax raises that are predicted to accompany this proposal.”
The Connect America Fund gathers money in the form of fees collected from wireless customers and redirects them to increasing broadband access. The program has funded internet expansions in South Dakota and Wisconsin.
“I will use that seat in Congress to work with our state legislatures to pull down our fair share of those fees that we have been paying for years,” Dittmar said. “With all three legislatures working together, we are going to get this done, just like South Dakota has done.”
Garrett said the move would have other consequences.
“If history is any indicator, each time the government has stepped outside the boundaries of its purview, the incomprehensible waste and abuse is counterproductive to job creation and economic expansion,” he said.
The FCC dollars are only available to incumbent providers — companies that held landline phone service monopolies before there was much market competition. CenturyLink is a large incumbent provider in Albemarle.
With that restriction on the funds, said Baylor Fooks, co-founder of Blue Ridge InternetWorks, the money will mean nothing to smaller providers.
“Most of those grants go to the incumbents, and not much happens as a result of the grants,” said Fooks, who sold a majority stake of BRI to national wireless provider Ting in 2014. “The problem that rural broadband faces is that it takes a lot of capital to get it done … As long as those grants keep going to incumbents, that is not likely to change.”
For Ting, the ruling will not change day-to-day operations.
“We are planning our expansion into Albemarle County and building as fast as we can, as fast as the permits will allow,” Fooks said.
This week’s ruling is a defeat for large internet providers, as it provides a framework for tighter regulation of the business. Without a size threshold below which the FCC rules do not apply, Fooks said, small providers could be disproportionately affected.
“It would have been something that Blue Ridge InternetWorks would have been worried about, because it adds some regulatory layers to being a service provider, but now that we have been acquired we have the resources to adapt,” he said. “We would hope that there is a certain size threshold before you get regulatory burden, because we need small providers.”
Both Dittmar and Fooks applauded the court for defending net neutrality.
“It will prevent providers from hurting consumers by carving up service or pulling down competitors’ content,” Dittmar said. “It is really a protection of our American way of life as it relates to freedom of speech.”