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Charlotte Digital Inclusion Experts Outline Impact Of Election On Internet Access


Your access to the internet could be vastly different in the future, depending on who is elected president in November. 

Under President Donald Trump, federal regulators want to end the longstanding policy of “net neutrality, "which holds that internet service providers should provide customers equal access to internet content and applications. The 2020 Democratic platform favors this approach.  

In 2017, however, the FCC, led by its chairman and Trump-appointee Ajit Pai, voted to repeal net neutrality protections put in place by the Obama administration in 2015. 

Republicans say that the internet should be shaped by the free market because it would better suit consumers in the long run.  

Proponents of net neutrality predict that internet providers ultimately could charge consumers more for access to higher speeds. Those speeds could be needed to take advantage of video streaming and other services.  

For now, though, little has changed while the FCC’s decision is being challenged in court. 

Andrew Au

Andrew Au, the director of operations at Digital Charlotte, said that “19% of households (in Charlotte) do not have high-speed internet,” which he described as “the bare minimum that you would need to be effective.” Digital Charlotte, a project of the Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, advocates for equal internet access. 

As broadband technology has advanced, the question of how to manage the internet as a resource has been fraught with partisan agendas. 

Last year, an appellate court upheld the FCC’s decision to end net neutrality, which had been challenged by states and companies that advocate for open access. However, the court also ruled that the FCC does not have the right to block state and local governments from having their own net neutrality policies. 

While this was a victory for the states, the Department of Justice recently moved to prevent California’s legislature from upholding net neutrality in that state. 

In their platform, the Democratic Party specifies that the FCC should retain net neutrality as a policy and hold internet service providers accountable. It also pledges to invest “in broadband and 5G technology, including rural and municipal broadband.”  

The 2016 Republican Party platform, which was extended to include this election cycle, aims “to encourage the sharing economy and on-demand platforms to compete in an open market.” The party wants to make sure that the internet continues to advance through competition-driven innovation. 

Seth Ervin

But Seth Ervin, the chief innovation officer at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, disagrees with that strategy. 

“I’m for the free market,” he said. “But I don’t think (internet access) is a commodity anymore.”  

Ervin works with the Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance, which promotes digital access for underserved communities.

He sees ties between internet access and socioeconomic mobility, as well as systemic racism. For example, access to the web is necessary to find a job and, during a pandemic, to even have an interview. Children are taking classes online. Patients see their doctors virtually. 

“The keys to (equal access) are the internet and a computer, period,” Ervin said. “How do you make sure that folks are getting an equal chance to participate in your community?” 

Nearly one out of every 10 households in Charlotte lacks internet access at home, Ervin said. One in five don’t have a computer.  

Jon Sanders still thinks the public will be better off allowing the free market to shape the web. Sanders is a researcher at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank in Raleigh.  

Jon Sanders

“In general, the great social ills that we were supposed to see from the loss of … net neutrality have not manifested themselves, so I’m generally in favor of a deregulated environment,” he said. “I think we see greater flourishing of … entrepreneur-like activity and ingenuity (more) than we would with a top-down government-driven platform.”  

He thinks that the increasing reliance on the internet, especially as a result of the pandemic, will result in greater innovation by private enterprise. 

In contrast, Au would like to see the internet become a public utility. He, among others, likens the move to the adoption of electricity as a utility. That, too, was once privatized.  

“I would classify the internet as a necessary public utility for every household — in Charlotte, in Mecklenburg County, in North Carolina, in the country,” he said.  

Sanders understands this argument, but he thinks this is an oversimplification. Now, he said, “there are multiple ways of bringing broadband infrastructure” to rural areas. He cited satellites, cables and start-up companies, like Eastern Carolina Broadband, which has distributed internet using water towers, sweet gum trees and grain elevators. 

He added, “This is just the sort of private innovation that you might not see take place if (the) government has taken over.” 

Margaret Thacker is a student in a political reporting seminar at the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte.