FCC chairwoman with Santa Clara County firefighters
FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel (center in civilian clothes) with Santa Clara County firefighters at the Sunnyoaks Fire Station in Campbell April 8. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

As Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel left the Sunnyoaks Fire Station in Campbell Monday, where she’d held a roundtable discussion with emergency and tech industry officials, the solar eclipse was traversing North America and she was in high spirits.

Here at the McCormack Training Center, she was just blocks from the global headquarter of Netflix, a company that recently weighed-in with support for her push to restore net neutrality.

“First of all, it’s beautiful,” she told the Los Gatan, looking around her at the area once known as the Valley of the Heart’s Delight, the birthplace of so many of the firms she regulates. “It’s tremendous to speak to the Santa Clara County Fire Department about just how to use technology to keep us safe. Here in Silicon Valley they’re taking advantage of those technologies like nobody else—and it’s terrific to see.”

Ahead of the FCC’s upcoming vote on net neutrality—the foundational principle of the web, that internet traffic should flow freely and not face chokeholds by internet service providers (ISPs)—she was here to rewind to the last year a solar eclipse hit America.

roundtable discussion
The rectangular “roundtable” discussion on net neutrality held right in the heart of Silicon Valley. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

Rosenworcel had come to meet with the SCCFD as a reminder of what can happen when telecom companies are given free rein to divvy-up the flow-through of their internet “pipes.”

That’s because, starting in 2017, as firefighters responded to some of the most serious wildfires in California history, the ability to communicate life-saving information was throttled by ISPs, she said.

FCC chairwoman
FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

Fire Chief Suwanna Kerdkaew said the ability to gather and share information about weather conditions and spot fires that crop up is critical to waging a campaign against wildfires.

Assistant Chief Brian Glass recalled his experience on the front lines, a few months after their battle with Verizon began.

“I was deployed in June of 2018 to the Pawnee Fire, where we had OES 5262—a strike team of engines from Santa Clara County and several overhead members that were deployed on the incident, as part of an incident management team,” he said. “During that incident we were trying to move resources through a myriad of different fires throughout the region, and that’s the role and responsibility of OES 5262 in supporting the mutual aid effort throughout the state. The throttling became an issue as we were trying to access the resource and ordering system. So, that is the direct impact.”

Barbara van Schewick, professor with the Stanford Law School, described net neutrality as “we the people” getting the choice about what to do online.

“We get to decide what sites we visit, what apps we want to use, what videos to watch, and the companies we pay to get online don’t get to interfere with our choices,” she said. “They don’t get to block websites or services…They don’t get to speed-up or slow-down services they like or don’t like.”

Net neutrality has been supported by both Democratic and Republican administrations, van Schewick added. 

Rosenworcel said she wants to make sure that net neutrality is the law of the land.

“We believe that broadband providers should not have the right to throttle your services, censor any content online or block websites,” she said. “It’s vitally important that every one of us can go where we want, do what we want online, without our broadband provider making choices for us.”

She characterized net neutrality as “court tested” and “wildly popular” amongst consumers and businesses.

“But today we were able to talk about what it means for public safety,” she said. “Because when our firefighters are going to dangerous environments, they want to know that they have an internet that they can count on.”

speaking during eclipse
Rosenworcel spoke to the media as an eclipse was traversing North America. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

Verizon told the Los Gatan it is committed to an open internet.

“We do not prioritize traffic in a way that harms competition or consumers, and we offer transparency in what we do,” a spokesperson said. “That commitment was put in place several years ago and remains in place today.”

The company also said it maintains strong support for public safety agencies.

Earlier this year, Netflix weighed-in with support for the FCC’s net neutrality push. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

“For three decades we’ve worked hand-in-hand with public safety agencies and first responders on the front lines delivering mission critical communications where and when they’re needed,” the spokesperson said.

Earlier this year, Netflix argued Americans should have the freedom to access the websites of their choice without any interference from carriers.

“ISPs should not be permitted to block or throttle such access or engage in paid prioritization, and should be required to be transparent about their network management practices,” reads the Jan. 17 submission signed by Thomas Volmer, head of global content delivery policy and Diana Oo, head of US federal affairs. “Netflix members depend on a well-functioning, content-agnostic Internet for unfettered access to our TV shows, movies, and games.”

Cheryl Scimone, a 59-year-old resident of Los Gatos’ North 40 neighborhood said while she wasn’t familiar with the term “net neutrality,” she could see why it could be seen as important.

“Why should some people get more of an advantage than others?” she said, at a coffee shop just across the freeway from the Netflix campus. “Having said that, the whole world does work that way—you pay for what you get. But in this situation, I don’t necessarily think someone should have that advantage.”

The FCC is seeking the ability to force companies to address internet outages and beef-up consumer protections.

A vote has been scheduled for April 25.

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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