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Bipartisan leaders are much needed

Bipartisanship has been declared all but dead in Washington. But even as tempers flare and divisions deepen, there are still critical issues impacting West Virginians that can’t be fixed without bipartisan solutions. Broadband policy is near the top of that list.

For years, the fight over net neutrality has dragged on in Washington with no long-term solution. Meanwhile, West Virginia languishes in 47th place among U.S. states for percentage of residents without access to broadband access. Our connectivity crisis is a major hurdle to economic development and growth.

Net neutrality is the idea that broadband companies and big Silicon Valley tech companies shouldn’t be able to unfairly prioritize or block what their customers can see and do online. The internet needs to remain free and open, not broken up into a series of walled gardens or toll roads.

In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tried to enact open internet rules. But a few years later, a federal court threw them out – not because they’re a fundamentally bad idea, but because Congress had never given the FCC authority to enforce net neutrality. The FCC tried again in 2015, but to get around the court rulings they took a much more controversial approach: changing the legal classification of broadband to make it fit under telephone utility laws originally written in the 1930s.

But that workaround had a big problem: plenty of economists and other experts say that utility laws are historically bad for infrastructure investment. Based on these concerns, the FCC reversed that utility classification in 2017, and a federal appeals court just upheld that decision last month.

But in the wake of that court ruling, consumers are still left without net neutrality protections, and the uncertainty over where regulations might land in the future continues to hang over broadband investment decisions. A bill based on the flawed utility approach passed the House of Representatives in April on a party line vote, but has been declared “dead on arrival” by Senate leaders concerned over the impact on broadband investment.

Some on the right don’t believe we need any net neutrality rules at all, that the invisible hand of the market is enough to protect the open internet. Meanwhile, some on the left are so eager to punish broadband providers that they don’t even notice (or don’t even care) that the disincentive for more investment — caused by utility rules — would fall disproportionately on places like West Virginia that are already struggling with inadequate broadband access.

The only way to settle the debate once and for all is for Congress to step in and pass net neutrality protections through a bipartisan bill that also preserves a more modern, investment-friendly regulatory framework and avoids creating additional barriers to rural broadband deployment.

We’re fortunate in West Virginia to have two senators with proven histories of bipartisan leadership. Sen. Capito has been a leader in pushing bipartisan solutions on infrastructure and the opioid crisis. And I’ve personally seen Sen. Manchin’s bipartisanship up close, when we worked closely together on the Corridor H project through Tucker County. We didn’t let party labels distract us from cooperating to meet our constituents’ needs. That’s exactly the kind of leadership we also now need to break the stalemate on net neutrality and broadband regulation.

The clock is ticking in Washington. The time to act is now. I’m hopeful West Virginia’s two senators can help lead the way.

Lowell Moore, president

Tucker County

Commission