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No, preserving net neutrality won't raise your cellphone bill

No, preserving net neutrality won't raise your cellphone bill
Protesters fighting to save net neutrality rally outside a Verizon store in San Francisco in 2017. (Karl Mondon / Tribune News Service)

Opponents of a net neutrality proposal that would bar Verizon, Comcast and other broadband providers from meddling with Californians’ internet traffic have been robocalling senior citizens to warn them that the legislation would raise their cellphone bills. It’s a scare tactic that consumers and their representatives in Sacramento should dismiss.

At issue is Senate Bill 822 by Sens. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), which would prohibit broadband providers from blocking, slowing down or otherwise interfering with legal transmissions on their data networks. It faces do-or-die votes this week in the state Assembly and Senate.

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The robocalls, which were sponsored by a lobbying firm for broadband providers, delivered this message: “Your Assembly member will be voting on a proposal by San Francisco politicians that could increase your cellphone bill by $30 a month and slow down your data.”

The arithmetic is, shall we say, inventive. Broadband providers claim that cellphone rates would go up and service would degrade in part because SB 822 would prohibit them from collecting millions of dollars in fees from companies that interconnect with the providers’ networks to deliver data. But the bill would not ban “interconnection” fees; it would simply bar broadband providers from meddling with consumers’ data as it was being delivered to their networks.

SB 822 would also prohibit phone and cable companies from letting websites subsidize the consumers who use their services by paying their data charges. But that doesn’t mean consumers’ bills would automatically go up. Some European countries have imposed this sort of restriction, yet mobile phone users there have higher data caps and lower data prices.

The point behind the legislation isn’t to raise or lower cellphone bills; it’s to restore for Californians the net neutrality rules that the Federal Communications Commission repealed after Republicans took control in 2017. (The repeal is currently being challenged in court.) Those rules were designed to protect the openness and freedom from interference that have made the internet such a powerful source of opportunity and innovation. The idea behind net neutrality is that internet users, not the companies that connect them, should determine what’s popular, which business models succeed, and what information flows across the net.

Ironically, the state version of the rules wouldn’t incorporate the one feature of the repealed FCC rules that really might have lowered cellphone bills. Under the federal rules, consumers could have filed complaints with the FCC about the data charges they paid. SB 822 gives Californians no such power. Instead, it would give Californians a measure of protection that the federal government ought to provide, but no longer does.

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