Net Neutrality Threatened as FCC Plans Internet Fast Lanes

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) will publish its plan to reverse the net neutrality rules that banded Internet service providers from blocking or slowing down content in favour of companies that are able and willing to pay extra for their content to be delivered more quickly. It appears that the FCC will remove almost all of the agency’s 2015 net neutrality rules.

Back of a tractor driving on a paved road
Stuck behind the throttle tractor: the end of net neutrality

What Exactly Is Net Neutrality, and Why Does It Matter?

The basic concept of net neutrality is that all lawful content is the same, whether a Netflix stream or this site; regardless of the ability to pay, no traffic is pushed through the pipes quicker. Why it is important? Consider what ISPs can do already with the current rules in place.

AT&T customers who utilize DirectTV (owned by AT&T) do not lose any of the monthly data allowance; however, if they watch their movies on Netflix or YouTube, they do. T-Mobile allows selected video and music streaming companies to bypass their data limits, effectively becoming the puppet master by deciding who the winners and losers are in this market. Now, this might not be an issue in a truly free market, but moving from one provider to another is not without its difficulties, especially if you have a handset deal.

Net neutrality might not seem like a big thing to most people, but it can effectively lead to the end of free-to-air streamed services, and the Internet may start to resemble 1990s cable and satellite bundles, with customers needing to pay more for premium content. The arena that will be hit first is mobile data, where we will see preferential partnerships. In fact, this is already happening. What is more worrying is that once net neutrality is lost, contrary to the statement of FCC chair Ajit Pai that “the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet, the FCC would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate.” It is much more likely to stifle innovation, as the small start-ups will have no chance to gain market traction—they will be priced out of the market. Yes, the likes of Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, and any large traditional media company will be able to pay for access to the new Internet superhighway, as they have deep pockets. However, everybody else will be relegated to the winding country lane, stuck behind a tractor.

What is basically going to happen is that only those providers that can pay for guaranteed bandwidth across the network, including bulk carriers, will gain effective access to the Internet equivalent of a brand-new highway. Companies will bundle content with their offerings, and we will be plunged back into the dark ages of the cable TV and satellite television packages of the late 1990s. The Internet will again become islands of content behind paywalls to allow them to compete with giants like Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Google, and Time Warner, which can pay for their access through traditional adverts inserted into their content

Why worry? Let me give you a very plausible example of a future event. Currently, Comcast, the US’s largest Internet provider, is banned from blocking or throttling content under the terms of its 2011 merger with NBCUniversal. That ban expires in 2018. Current net neutrality rules would effectively continue that ban. However, with the new position, Comcast would be fully within its rights to throttle Netflix, Amazon Prime, or other companies if they do not pay extra for their access. This is after Netflix and Amazon pay their direct access provider for their terabit connections. Then we have other carriers, who would want their slice of the Netflix and Amazon pie. This will result in your Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions increasing in cost, coupled with the money that Comcast or your provider already takes from you to provide your 10-, 20-, or 100-Mbps link. This will effectively mean that your 20-Mbps pipe will only be 20 Mbps for those services that are provided by your provider.

What is worse is that this is not just a US issue. The loss of net neutrality will affect all global Internet users, and that is just not right.


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