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President Barack Obama, a former Chicago community organizer and perhaps our most urban president, just did something that could make a real difference for rural America. Last week he came to the defense of the principle of net neutrality, and he urged the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

This could be a big win for rural communities and small towns. Let me tell you how.

Net Neutrality
Net neutrality is the principle that all information is treated equally and that no website or streaming service can pay for a faster lane.

President Obama explained it: “We cannot allow Internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas… I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.”

The president’s calling for Title II reclassification is an unequivocal commitment to ensure that rural Americans don’t get stuck in the slow lane. Thank you, Mr. President.

The Internet helps rural communities revitalize our local economies, share our culture with global audiences and amplify our voices in debates that shape society.

For example, Becky McCray owns a liquor store and cattle ranching business in Hopeton, Oklahoma, a town of 30 people. She also writes about how to run a small business and connects with other rural business owners across the country via her blog, Small Biz Survival.

You can’t buy Becky’s products online, but she uses the Internet for every aspect of her businesses: to bid on merchandise, to run her iPad as a cash register, to market her products. The Internet allows her to compete with large liquor businesses in metropolitan areas and to stay in her rural community. Without network neutrality, Becky will be at a competitive disadvantage. She simply does not have the same capital that a big Internet-based company like BevMo! has to speed up their connection.

President Obama stood up for Becky and small, rural business owners like her.

Affordable, Reliable, Quality Broadband
But the call to action did not stop at net neutrality. This is where things got really good for rural America. The commander in chief explicitly compared telephone and broadband service, thus opening the door to a conversation I really want to have – how to bring affordable, reliable broadband service to rural communities. Here’s what he said:

For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business… It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information – whether a phone call, or a packet of data. So the time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do.

Rural, Native, and low-income communities are the majority of those unable to access telecommunications services today.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 97% of Americans have basic telephone service and 10.6 million of them depend on government assistance to be able to pay for it. Title II of the Telecommunications Act has been vital in our country’s success to bring a telephone line to almost every American home.

Because telephone providers follow Title II rules, they have to meet several requirements. They must:

  • Serve every person who requests service within their area.
  • Provide affordable, reliable, quality service.
  • Guarantee 911 connectivity.
  • Maintain and repair the telephone line.
  • And provide back-up power during outages and natural disasters, among other consumer protections.

Title II also allows a state’s public utilities commission to investigate and resolve consumer complaints.

I understood the importance of Title II consumer protections when Hurricane Dolly hit South Texas in 2008. I was living about 20 minutes away from my parents’ home in Elsa, Texas, a small town of 5,600 residents.

In the days leading up to the hurricane, my mom prepared all the necessities – water, canned food, batteries for flashlights, a full tank of gas. She did not worry about the telephone because it had always worked (at that time Texas still applied Title II rules to telephone providers, but Texas deregulated in 2011). When the hurricane made landfall, it cut out Internet, television and electricity for three days. And even after the cell phone batteries died, my mom still had her trusted landline to call me. This resulted in my family and I cramming into my one bedroom apartment for three long days until power got restored at my parent’s house.

Dolly was a powerful hurricane, but not extremely dangerous for us. Other communities in our rural area got flooded with more than six feet of water and were unable to recover for weeks.

Thanks to Title II consumer protections, my mom’s phone worked and she was able to call me before and during the power outage and had no problem jumping back into her life after the hurricane. I hope no hurricane hits Texas as long as there are no rules requiring telephone providers to guarantee 911 connectivity, battery back-up, maintenance and repair and affordability.

Imagine that all these wonderful consumer protections also applied to the Internet. Especially now that some companies are switching their customers to telephone service that works via the Internet or that some consumers are choosing to replace their landline with an Internet-based voice service.

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By recognizing that broadband is as important as telephone service and stating that the same obligations should apply, the president stood up for rural America’s Internet access and safety. Today, 14.5 million people living in rural areas cannot access broadband service at home. Large Internet providers claim we are too remote, too expensive to reach and too few to serve. High prices for equipment and service also keep the Internet out of rural homes.

Although President Obama didn’t explicitly name rural communities, his statement opened up the door for a conversation that is vital to our future – how can we use Title II to bring affordable, reliable quality Internet access to communities?

The president’s statement encourages me, and I join him in urging the FCC to reclassify broadband as a Title II service. The way I see it, Title II gives America net neutrality, and it gives rural America a chance for a productive future.

Edyael Casaperalta coordinates the Rural Broadband Policy Group of the National Rural Assembly, a national coalition of rural groups advocating for affordable, reliable, high speed Internet in rural areas. You can follow her on Twitter @_edyael_ and email her at [email protected]

YouTube video

President Obama's announcement in support of network neutrality.

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