By Mike Rogoway

Oregon joined a wave of states backing net neutrality Monday, with Gov. Kate Brown's signing of a bill designed to give companies an economic incentive to allow unfettered online access.

"In Oregon, we want to make sure that access to the internet is a level playing field, instead of exacerbating economic disparity," Brown said in a written statement.

The Federal Communications Commission voted in December to repeal net neutrality protections adopted during the Obama administration, with the new rules taking effect in April. Trump administration appointees say regulation could stifle online innovation.

Advocates for an open internet say that without net neutrality, Comcast and other big internet service providers might charge certain sites extra for fast connections to their customers. Net neutrality proponents say that could make it prohibitively expensive to start new internet companies, and they say existing websites might pass along their higher costs to subscribers.

The governor signed the bill Monday morning at Mount Tabor Middle School in Portland. Students from Mount Tabor were among those who testified in favor of Oregon's legislation.

The net neutrality fight generally splits along party lines, with Democrats favoring the rules and Republicans opposing it. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is among the most visible proponents, nationally, of an open internet; U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, is a leading opponent of net neutrality.

Oregon and several other states are suing the FCC over the net neutrality repeal, arguing the commission didn't follow proper rulemaking procedures. Meanwhile, lawmakers across the country are trying to undo the FCC's action.

Washington lawmakers passed a bill last month that would require all internet providers operating in the state to retain net neutrality protections. It's an uncertain proposition, legally, because federal authority generally takes precedence with the internet.

Oregon and several other states are trying a different approach, using government contracts as an incentive for internet companies to retain net neutrality policies. (There are exceptions for cases where only a single internet provider is available.)

Even so, some legal experts have suggested Oregon's approach could be subject to legal challenge. Former Oregon Supreme Court justice  Mick Gillette wrote in The Oregonian/OregonLive last month that a court fight is almost certain.

And it's not clear the efforts of Oregon and similar states will discourage all internet companies from flaunting net neutrality. They may conclude that prioritizing some internet traffic is more valuable than relatively small contracts with state and local governments.

Net neutrality advocates say they're not sure how much business telecom providers do with the state of Oregon. But Oregon's largest city reports the value of its vendor payments, and they provide some sense of the scale involved.

Comcast, for example, had contracts worth $1.25 million with the city of Portland last year. But the company reported nearly $85 billion in revenue altogether. CenturyLink's Portland contracts were worth $1.8 million, against $16.3 billion in total revenue.

(c)2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)