An upcoming change in defining broadband is sparking debate

A federal plan expected to get the green light Feb. 26 would put all Internet service in the same camp as telephones and every other public utility.

The anticipated approval by the Federal Communications Commission for the plan called “net neutrality” is politically charged because it calls for expanding federal power.

For average folks, most of whom use the Internet, “net neutrality” means that whether you're trying to buy a necklace on Etsy, stream the season premiere of Netflix's "House of Cards" or watch a music video on Google's YouTube, your Internet service provider would have to load all of those websites at the same speed.

“It’s an attempt to keep an even playing field so no one big player dominates the Internet,” said Ed Hemminger, owner of Hemminger IT Solutions, LLC. based in Farmington.

“It is moving the Internet into being a true utility, which will allow government to do more regulations and make sure everything stays as fair as possible,” added Hemminger, former Ontario County chief information officer.

Hemminger is also a founding partner in Axcess Ontario, the public-benefit corporation that oversees the 200-plus-mile open access fiber-optic ring in Ontario County.

Hemminger likened the “net neutrality” concept to speed limits on roads. By setting the same speed limit for everyone, the law does not discriminate and let some drivers go faster than others, he said.

He added that the definition of broadband has changed as advances in high-speed Internet continue to grow. He said he sees “net neutrality” as well as new guidelines in defining broadband all part of progress in providing the latest in Internet capability.

Hemminger said the need for higher speed and getting that service to everyone makes what Axcess Ontario offers even more significant.

Ontario County still has a few geographic areas not yet connected to the fiber ring, Hemminger said. But those areas are becoming fewer, he said.

An example is Hunt Hollow Ski Club on County Road 36 in Naples. Even after the fiber ring was built, the club couldn’t access the greater bandwidth because no telecommunications carriers would offer an affordable hookup to the fiber.

But as in other rural areas, demand for high-speed broadband has grown, and so has competition among carriers to offer that speed.

After several years of struggling to do business operations and satisfy club members and guests who expect consistent, online access for laptops, smart phones and other devices, Hunt Hollow this past December finally made it into the 21st century. With help from the Ontario County Information Office and Axcess Ontario, Hunt Hollow was able to weigh offers from a few different carriers and settled on Empire Communications, said club General Manager Joe Callahan. He said he is thrilled with the price and the service.

“I lost sleep worrying about the transition,” said Callahan. But he needn’t have worried: “They made the transition easy for us,” he said.

Now the club’s Internet access is “just blazing fast,” Callahan said.

As for the controversy over “net neutrality,” major Internet providers insist they have no plans to create fast or slow lanes, and they strongly oppose the regulation, arguing that it could stifle innovation and investment. Open Internet rules had been in place but were recently knocked down by a federal court.

U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, opposes net neutrality rules. Collins, whose district includes part of Ontario County including Canandaigua, said in a statement: “Plans to reclassify the Internet ... pose a direct threat to Internet freedom.”

“The FCC’s actions threaten the innovative culture that makes the Internet one of the world’s greatest technologies,” he stated,

Collins said he backs draft legislation “that would achieve the goal of protecting Internet consumers through the bright-line rules that net neutrality proponents are calling for in a way that limits burdensome regulations from crushing innovation.”

Meanwhile, proponents of the FCC plan, which President Barack Obama is expected to sign, say the move attempts to erase any legal uncertainty by reclassifying the Internet as a telecommunications service and regulating it under the 1934 Communications Act. The plan would apply to both wired service provided by companies like Comcast and wireless service by companies like T-Mobile.

— Includes reporting by The Associated Press