The recent repeal of net neutrality has raised hackles across the U.S., but Ajit Pai and Rep. Greg Walden found a mostly friendly audience Saturday in Eastern Oregon.
Pai, the lightning rod chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was in the midst of an 1,800-mile tour of rural communities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana to discuss the “digital divide” between rural and urban communities.
Walden, who oversees the FCC as the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, joined Pai as he stopped in Hermiston, Pendleton and Weston.
According to Walden, Pai was likely the first FCC chairman to visit Eastern Oregon. The last stop of the day was at Weston’s Memorial Hall, where Pai and Walden spoke with local elected officials and representatives from communication corporations.
While Pai was there to discuss how rural communities could gain access to broadband internet services, the conversation did touch on the FCC’s recent repeal of net neutrality.
Net neutrality is a rule that requires internet service providers to treat all internet traffic equally, regardless of how much they pay or where they are located.
With the repeal having gone into effect on June 11, Pai shot back at some of his critics.
In both an interview before the meeting and in his discussions during the meeting, Pai said the sky hadn’t fallen since net neutrality ended 12 days prior and the “fear mongering” coming from “grandstanding politicians” opposed to the move was overblown.
Walden backed him up, saying the communication technology had benefited from the FCC’s “light touch” approach in the past, and the old policy was hampering expansion into rural areas.
Weston Mayor Jennifer Spurgeon said improving her city’s internet access has been a personal “pet project.”
Spurgeon said the idea of net neutrality isn’t relevant in her city, because her town’s internet access is already inconsistent and slow.
“Out here, we’re still in dial-up mode,” she said.
A real estate appraiser who works from home, Spurgeon said she recently tried to upload real estate photos onto her computer. After they failed to load a few times, she went to lunch in the time it took them to publish.
Weston wasn’t the only town that local officials reported having problems.
John Day City Manager Nick Green said his city has already received $2 million from the Oregon Legislature to build fiber lines to rural John Day, but the town needs another $3 million to get the project done.
With John Day being a $40,000 market at best, Green said a private company voluntarily extending broadband to John Day was unlikely.
“If it’s not publicly owned or publicly available, we’re screwed,” he said.
While the audience mostly nodded in agreement with one another, not everyone in Eastern Oregon was a fan of Walden and Pai’s policies.
Walden and Pai spent the first two legs of the trip visiting Mirasol Family Health Clinic in Hermiston to talk about tele-health and the Umatilla County Dispatch in Pendleton to talk about gaps in 911 coverage. They were greeted at the latter by five activists dissatisfied with the pair.
Standing in the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office parking lot, the protesters focused most of their ire on Walden.
They carried a sign that stated “WALDEN SOLD YOU OUT” and Colleen Blackwood fashioned “Vote McLeod-Skinner” apparel out of tape and a jean jacket, referring to the Hood River Republican’s Democratic opponent this November.
Among the hashtags on the protest sign was “#NetNeutrality.” Protester Sue Petersen wasn’t keen on the repeal.
“For rich people, they love it,” she said.
When Walden’s car rolled into the parking lot, their signs and voices elicited a wave and a smile from the ten-term congressman before he was quickly escorted into the building.