You’ve probably been hearing “net neutrality” pop up in the news, just like it did a couple years back. You’re probably hearing a lot of outrage right along with it, too.
So what’s all the fuss about this time?
What is “net neutrality”?
The concept of net neutrality dictates that all Internet content is treated equally by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Whether you’re a big name like Netflix or one person trying to get their blog off the ground, ISPs deliver your content to us the consumers the same way.
ISPs cannot pick and choose what content they want to deliver, and they can’t play favorites as far as who gets what kind of bandwidth; it’s an even playing field.
Why are we talking about it again?
Back in 2015, the FCC under the Obama administration reclassified the internet as a telecommunications service, not an information service. The internet would, therefore, be regulated as a public utility.
Chairman at the time, Tom Wheeler, intended to use this regulation to enforce net neutrality, as the internet was “too important to let broadband providers be the ones making the rules.”
One of the commissioners who opposed this move, Ajit Pai, is now chairman of the FCC under the Trump administration. Pai has made it clear that he intends to reverse this move, saying “It’s basic economics. The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get.”
Instead, he plans to leave regulation to the providers themselves.
Why should we care?
What’s actually at the core of this issue is that there is very, very little competition in the ISP arena.
According to the FCC’s Internet Access Services report from December 2015, only 24% of developed census blocks across the U.S. had access to a 25Mbps internet connection from more than one ISP. The percentage drops to 11 once we get to 100Mbps connections.
In other words, the vast majority of us don’t have much choice when it comes to who provides our high-speed internet.
So if ISPs have near regional monopolies, and if they are left to regulate themselves, the fear is that Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon could manipulate internet access, give priority to those companies who can hand over a hefty sum of money, and let the little guys get crushed beneath their weight.
We saw some whispers of this back in 2014 when Comcast required Netflix to pay for its services to be delivered directly through Comcast’s network. Whether or not we think the fee made sense (Netflix’s services require a truly massive amount of bandwidth, after all), many were alarmed to see an ISP exerting so much control over another business.
Will it only go downhill from there?
I’m not ready to panic quite yet, nor do I plan to put any real energy into planning for the worst case scenario.
I will, however, be paying close attention to the FCC, whether or not it goes through with the chairman’s plan, and what the actual ruling dictates once it has passed. Those of us whose businesses are highly dependent on the cloud or video streaming would do well to follow suit.
Because precedent, like the Internet, is a powerful force indeed.
As originally published in the American City Business Journals.