Life in the fast lane: FCC plan on net neutrality draws criticism

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Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, center, and retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, right, look on during Archbishop Cordileone's installation Mass at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption Oct. 4. He succeeds Archbishop George H. Niederauer, 76, who had headed the San Francisco Archdiocese since 2005. (CNS photo/Dennis Callahan, Catholic San Francisco)

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, center, and retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, right, look on during Archbishop Cordileone’s installation Mass at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption Oct. 4. He succeeds Archbishop George H. Niederauer, 76, who had headed the San Francisco Archdiocese since 2005. (CNS photo/Dennis Callahan, Catholic San Francisco)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Everyone, at some point, has shifted over from one Communion line to another during Mass because it seemed shorter and, thus, faster.

Now imagine what it would be like if you could always have a “fast lane” to receive Communion — but you had to pay for it.

It’s a good image to keep in mind as the Federal Communications Commission considers regulations that would allow Internet service providers to open a fast lane for those with the cash.

But few people would likely have enough money to pay for this kind of fast lane. Already, Netflix has made a deal with Comcast to pay a considerable premium to keep its programming streaming faster into people’s computers.

Netflix’s deal came shortly after Comcast, the nation’s largest cable TV provider, announced it would acquire Time Warner Cable, the second-largest cable company. Comcast is also one of the United States’ biggest Internet service providers, owns NBC and a fistful of cable channels, and offers telephone service through its Xfinity bundling package.

In short, net neutrality is the concept that all traffic that goes through the Internet is treated equally. It shouldn’t take you any longer to access your local Catholic newspaper or diocesan website than to get to Web behemoths like Google or Netflix.

But the Netflix-Comcast deal has already demonstrated that a speed lane can be created. And that would make any other lane a slow lane. What’s more, some Internet service providers have already been accused of purposely slowing down traffic from certain websites.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long been an advocate for net neutrality.

In a 2009 letter to then-FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, now-retired Archbishop George H. Niederauer of San Francisco noted that “there has been uncertainty about how and whether those (Internet service) companies can block, speed up or slow down Internet content” once the FCC removed its regulatory framework over the Internet in 2005. Archbishop Niederauer was then chairman of the USCCB Communications Committee.

In calling for a continued open Internet, Archbishop Niederauer stressed “the goal of ensuring that companies providing Internet access do not favor or disfavor categories of speech (and) will provide certainty to those using the Internet that this vital medium is open to their messages.” This goal was considered vital to religious groups, who had seen their messages receive a lower priority from broadcast and cable television.

“The Internet is one of the few mediums available to churches and religious groups to communicate their messages and the values fundamental to the fabric of our communities,” said USCCB Secretary for Communications Helen Osman in a 2011 letter to members of Congress amid concern that Congress would pass a law banning the FCC from regulating the Internet.

“The Internet is increasingly the preferred method for the disenfranchised and vulnerable — the poor that the church professes a fundamental preference toward — to access services, including educational and vocational opportunities to improve their lives and their children’s lives,” Osman added. “It is immoral for for-profit organizations to banish these individuals and the institutions who serve them to a second-class status on the Internet.”

Yet that is what may soon happen.

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability has been putting together an app that would help children with autism and other intellectual disabilities prepare for the sacraments.

“We’re excited about it. We’re close, we’re very close” to the app being ready,” said Jan Benton, executive director of the organization. But, when told that the app might work more slowly if larger companies are able to pay premiums to route their content more quickly, she replied, “It’s discouraging. People who can afford to pay more will have the faster, better service.”

More than a dozen countries have faster Internet connection speeds than does the United States, and without having created tiered access. What’s more, while a relative handful of U.S. communities are wired for faster fiber optic service, much of rural America is still waiting for broadband, despite there being a national policy to connect every U.S. resident with broadband. Many rural Americans rely instead on outdated dial-up service to connect to the Internet.

“I would like to see Dale’s Fried Pies, my friend’s startup in Tennessee, reach customers in Australia as easily as Sara Lee Desserts does,” wrote Edyael Casaperalta of the Center for Rural Strategies, April 30 in the Daily Yonder, which is published by the center.

She added, “But if Internet providers can charge Dale more to reach customers faster, then she will no longer have an equal footing. Sara Lee, a corporation, can afford higher fees. Dale, a real person, can’t. Entrepreneurs and small businesses will be at a disadvantage. And that will hurt local economies.”

The future to save the Internet as we know it may be bleak but not black. Current FCC chair Tom Wheeler had said he wanted the FCC at its May 15 meeting to vote on a new set of proposed Internet rules to put out for public comment.

But unofficial public comment has been so strongly negative since Wheeler announced his plan in April that FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a May 7 speech that a delay was needed.

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