FCC chair visits Vermont to tout success of rural broadband

SPRINGFIELD, Vt. (WCAX) A little rain did not stop Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai from climbing into a bucket loader and being hoisted to the top of a wireless hotspot in Springfield, Vermont, Wednesday.

"It is critical for starting a business, educating kids, telemedicine, precision agriculture," Pai said.

Pai is touring the country to see firsthand how broadband internet service is affecting rural areas. It comes after regulations governing the internet recently changed. At the end of last year, the FCC repealed net neutrality rules to the consternation of Vermont's entire Congressional delegation and many other Democrats. But Pai says net neutrality interfered with the free market.

"These utility-style regulations were standing in the way of some of these small companies providing a competitive alternative to the big guys," Pai said.

VTel, which organized Pai's trip, is one of those smaller companies. It is one of about 1,200 small, independent telephone companies across the country. But VTel President Michel Guite says that number is shrinking.

"More federal policies and state policies that encourage those companies to invest into broadband and encourage them to survive is good for America," Guite said.

In 2010, VTel got help it was asking for. The high-speed internet provider was awarded $116 million in federal grants to expand its network into rural parts of the state. But there were concerns among lawmakers that the project took longer than expected and did not accomplish what it set out to do. Guite refutes that claim.

"There is always controversy with those projects and it's not a surprise but I think that, generally, we exceeded expectations, exceeded promises," he said.

Guite says Dave Fuller's farm in nearby Weathersfield is proof. The farm, another stop on Pai's tour, recently stopped milking cows after 40 years and is looking for ways to reinvent itself. Fuller says its high-speed internet from VTel is a must.

"Look up data, purchasing, selling, banking, email, anything like that," Fuller said.

Pai says a free and open internet is in everyone's best interests. He says if the little guys are successful, competition goes up and costs go down.

"So our hope going forward is that consumers would continue to be protected and the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission, we are going to have much more infrastructure improvements than we have had in the past few years," Pai said.

Pai's visit also included stops in the Northeast Kingdom. It was part of a multistate tour taking a closer look at rural broadband across New England.

SOME STATES ATTEMPT TO REINSTATE NET NEUTRALITY

Since the repeal of net neutrality on the federal level, several states are trying to reinstate it on their own.

In February, Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, signed an executive order directing the Agency of Administration to make sure all state contracts with internet providers include net neutrality protections.

Vermont is one of 23 states plus the District of Columbia that have banded together and are asking a U.S. Appeals Court to reinstate net neutrality rules nationwide.

CAN SOCIAL MEDIA BANS VIOLATE FREE SPEECH?

We also asked Pai about Alex Jones and his website Infowars, which was permanently banned from Twitter during the recent Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings. The social media giant said they took the action against Jones because of tweets and video that violate the company's abusive behavior policy.

But some say the ban is a violation of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

"Those who are concerned about a free an open internet have to be thinking about what these Silicon Valley tech giants do on their own platforms. These are companies that urge the FCC to heavily regulate their rival but it turns out, in many cases, those platforms are not operating in a neutral way. So recently, I have suggested that heavy government regulation is not the answer but we do need to have transparency. Consumers deserve to know how these companies are managing what they see and what they don't on these platforms," Pai said.