On Net Neutrality

[NB: A good friend asked me for some guidance on the current controversy surrounding Net Neutrality and I thought I would share my response. I hope that this explanation sets forth the issues at hand with more clarity than the “tech speak” that is echoed on the news surrounding the issue or than the politicized ads that are trying to pull you one way or the other.]

“As someone intimately engaged in tech and who loves innovation, keeping the Internet data agnostic is vital. What I mean by this is that currently when you receive Internet service to your home, you pay for different speeds, but the information that passes through the network is all treated the same. Whether you are streaming video, audio, downloading pictures, uploading documents; whatever you are doing, your Internet service provider sees it all as data and lets it pass through the network. This is the way things are and this is the way things should remain, particularly in a society where one of our key tenets is freedom of expression.

We have the technology in place on computer networks to identify what types of data are being passed over the network and to regulate the speeds at which certain data packets are able to travel. So, if you are streaming Netflix your Internet service provider can detect you are doing that and tell their systems to restrict bandwidth/space for Netflix to a particular rate of speed. So, let’s say you have your Internet service through Comcast. Comcast owns its own media conglomerate. So, under new rules the current FCC chair would like to put in place, Comcast could regulate the speed of Netflix traffic on their networks but allow data streaming from their media service to have more bandwidth (space/speed) on their network. In addition, they could restrict the speed of traffic to the Apple Music Service or Spotify, but make their Comcast music service stream at very high speeds. Now, Netflix, Spotify and Apple Music could work a deal with Comcast (and this happened to Netflix a couple of years ago) to increase their data’s speed on the Comcast network and Comcast could decide to allow that based on being paid by these companies. That would increase the cost of these services, potentially, to a level where they are more expensive than Comcast’s services, per my example.

As I said, the technology to do this sort of throttling/traffic shaping is already available, but it is currently against FCC regulations (last time I checked, the changes to the FCC code are coming down quickly under their new head who used to work for Verizon) to make these sorts of distinctions on what data is being passed along the network. With the changes being proposed, from what I understand, the door would be open for Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and the other large companies that own the network infrastructure to make these distinctions.

Those against Net Neutrality say that these companies should not be restricted from using a free market approach to operating their businesses. AT&T should be able to give its digital media platform (DirectTV) all the bandwidth it wants and to restrict the speeds of other competitors to close them out of the marketplace. That just sounds like good competition. Same with the other providers. From a business standpoint, they made the investments and mergers, they deserve to profit from their work. However, the market in this space under current FCC code is not as open as “free markets” makes it sound. Under the current code, it is illegal for either a small company or a community to establish its own network. There are contracts that the large players in this space have taken out that give them exclusive rights to operate Internet networks in particular areas. So, there is little possibility for truly open competition in a free market due to these wiring contracts.

What will end up happening long term in the current environment is that the Internet will become just like CableTV. You choose a provider and you get what they provide. If you want additional services, like Apple Music, Netflix, or other online services you like – possibly even access to certain web-based services on the Internet – you pay for them like premium channel packages. Making this shift would set us even further back relative to Internet connectivity than we already are in the U.S. Other developed nations are literally light years ahead of us when it comes to Internet infrastructure.

The Internet has been operating openly and freely quite well since its inception. It is a public trust that allows everyone who can afford even a basic Internet connection and device to operate in its space. Restricting this open, free and innovative access to Internet resources makes the playing field very uneven, gives a few corporations massive pull to place controls on their Internet networks, and it would be, really, another sector of our society where the “haves” would be able to have what they wanted and the “have nots” would end up with basic Internet that would move slowly and have heavy restrictions on what is could access.

The “haves” currently enjoy A LOT of pull in this space and I frankly cannot see any way right now to preserve the ideals of Net Neutrality. With a former Verizon guy in power over the FCC who was trying to dismantle the FCC’s policies when he was an underling, I think we can protest and do all sorts of things to raise cane, but he simply doesn’t care. He’s got too many deep pocketed people behind him to be afraid and he will give them what they want on July 17, which I think is the date the FCC will institute its latest slate of changes. After that we are all at the mercy of the providers of Internet lines in our areas. They probably won’t change anything for a while so they can say, “See, everything you thought would happen is not happening.” But, after a while they will start introducing “enhancements” to their services that will concentrate their market share in various segments over services delivered by others via the Internet.

In sum, while I wish we could make a big stand – and I do think things will be really disrupted on July 12 – the FCC is going to proceed as planned and we all – Internet companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, etc, included – better be ready to pay more for what we already have.”

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