On February 26th, the five members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on the important issue of Internet neutrality. So why should you care? Imagine this scenario: You are trying to access your favorite website, video game or movie, only to find that it is blocked unless you pay extra! That could very well become a reality if Net neutrality is not maintained.
What is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) - companies like Time Warner Cable or Comcast should treat all Internet traffic the same way. This means that it should be available to anyone who wishes to use it regardless of who they are and what they can afford to pay. Though that worked initially, the ISPs who have spent billions of dollars laying underground cable now want to be compensated. They believe that companies like Netflix and YouTube, who between them, consume 50% of all broadband traffic, should be subjected to higher rates.
The cable companies are therefore proposing to create "fast lanes" for businesses that want to pay them a monthly fee for having their content load more quickly than others. Though that sounds logical and perhaps even justified, herein lies the problem - There is only a limited amount of bandwidth available. If bigger companies all pay for "faster lanes", it could put small startups at a severe disadvantage since accessing their services would be excruciatingly slow or even blocked.
Advocates assert that it is because of Net neutrality that companies like Google, Facebook, and Pinterest exist. Among the millions of proponents of Net neutrality are educators. They fear that easy access to online educational content will be severely curtailed in favor of entertainment and other commercial offerings, because those companies can afford to pay.
Netflix customers were the first to experience a not-so "neutral" Internet in 2014, when the enterprise's service quality declined substantially. The ISP denied deliberately throttling traffic. However, after Netflix agreed to pay extra for a direct connection to Comcast's broadband network, the connection speeds increased almost instantly. Comcast maintains that the fee is justified because the additional costs associated with content streaming should be paid by Netflix and its customers, rather than all Comcast subscribers.
Net neutrality critics, however, warn that lawmakers have to be careful because over-regulating the broadband market could backfire. They maintain that it would discourage investment in Internet infrastructure and not motivate the ISPs to innovate. Comcast also argues Net neutrality hurt its clients. The company says that customers who wish to receive priority services for applications like streaming video and internet phone services should be allowed to do so. This would ensure that those that do not care can continue to pay regular rates.
There is no easy solution to this debate that has been raging for over a decade. In 2010, the FCC issued an Open Internet Order that made concessions on both sides. It allowed ISPs to engage in reasonable network management and did not prohibit them from giving preferential treatment to companies able to pay for access and speed. However, they also put in a stipulation that ISPs would be carefully monitored to ensure that they do not engage in anti-competitive practices and unreasonable discrimination against lawful content, apps and services.
But Verizon was not happy. In January 2011, the broadband and telecommunications company sued the FCC asserting that residential broadband was an 'information service', not a utility. Therefore, the FCC did not have the authority to impose the regulations. In 2014, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed, and the Net neutrality debate began in earnest again.
On April, 24th, 2014, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced that the Commission would commence work a new proposal to solve this issue once and for all. It is believed that Wheeler had initially been inclined toward allowing ISPs to charge extra for certain content. However, public sentiment is so overwhelmingly against that idea that Wheelers appears to have re-thought his plan.
While nobody knows for sure, Wheeler has hinted plans to employ Title II of the Communications Act and reclassify broadband access as a "utility" in his February 26th proposal. That means the ISPs will be subject to the same stringent regulations as electric or phone companies and forced to provide equal Internet access to everybody. Experts say that if that happens, the ISPs will challenge the decision, and the issue will end up in court once again.
The one thing that could help is if Congress, who is also working on legislation, passes a law that will supersede the FCC's decision. However given that lawmakers have had five unsuccessful attempts at passing Net neutrality legislation since 2004, it may not be that easy.
Resources: billmoyers.com, arstechnica.com,washingtonexaminer.com,gizmondo.com