In issuing an executive order directing internet service providers to adhere to net neutrality principles, Gov. Phil Murphy said the state would need more substantive action to solidify internet freedom in the state.
But in the interim, internet infrastructure businesses and experts say it is a good first step.
“I think it is, at the very least, an indication of the overall displeasure that a lot of companies and officials feel about [the repeal of net neutrality],” said Mark Stodgill, CEO of Hammer Fiber, an independent internet service provider based in Point Pleasant.
Net neutrality is the principle that all internet service providers are obligated to treat internet traffic as the same. The federal government solidified net neutrality in 2015 when the Federal Communications Commission voted to classify the internet as a Title II utility under the Communications Act of 1934. But that classification was repealed by the FCC in December.
“The FCC gave a green light to internet service providers putting a yellow or red light on the delivery of content based on any number of criteria, including if a company should pay to have its content treated more favorable,” Murphy said at the Feb. 5 press conference about the order.
Critics of net neutrality have said the regulation limits how ISPs can monetize their business and removes incentives to invest in internet infrastructure. Proponents argue it is necessary to maintain a fair marketplace for internet businesses.
Stogdill said the order may serve more as a symbolic gesture, but that might be enough to affect change.
“It definitely has some clout,” said Dipankar Raychaudhuri, director of Wireless Information Network Lab at Rutgers University. “I think it’s significant if all these governors link to something like that.”
Murphy was the third governor to sign an executive order requiring ISPs to follow net neutrality principles in order to do business with the state, joining fellow Democrats Steve Bullock of Montana and Andrew Cuomo of New York in taking similar actions.
The governor’s executive order would use New Jersey’s market power to influence ISPs position on the issue, but, he added, “New Jersey cannot unilaterally regulate net neutrality back into law.”
To affect change, the state could pass its own law addressing internet fairness.
Assemblyman Kevin Rooney, R-40th District, said he intends to introduce a bill that would restrict ISPs from implementing paid prioritization for their services (sometimes referred to as “fast lanes”) unless they already provide broadband speeds to the entire state.
“We need to ensure that everyone has the basic ability to get out there and use the internet,” Rooney said.
Rooney’s bill would not implement net neutrality protections, but would incentivize companies to expand their coverage and provide faster speeds to underserviced areas.
Stogdill said he could “see the wisdom” in Rooney’s proposed bill, but added it may benefit larger companies’ dominance over a market instead of creating more competition.
“Most companies like us, and there’s thousands of us, do not have the wherewithal to cover a statewide footprint,” Stogdill said.
Most proponents of net neutrality are concerned the recent FCC ruling will enable ISPs to manipulate traffic speeds for the purpose of creating opportunistic pricing models. For example, a provider that owns news websites could offer a fast lane for its owned entities while throttling speeds to other competing sites.
However, there are many types of internet traffic that already receive preferential treatment. Emergency texts about national crises already receive preference over other types of traffic.
Raychaudhuri said net neutrality is important as an underlying principle but not all traffic prioritization is a bad thing. If legislation outlawed all traffic prioritization, he said it could create unintended consequences.
“If you deal in [net neutrality] with black and white terms, it becomes a purely political debate,” Raychaudhuri said.
Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-20th District, introduced a bill in December that would prohibit traffic prioritization except for instances of “reasonable internet network management.”