Just in case you have been living under a rock or some remote location in the world one of the cores principles of Internet usage here in the United States has been repealed. On December 14 the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality regulations enacted under the Obama Administration in 2015 with a 3-2 vote along party lines. So, what does this mean for you?

What is Net Neutrality

Before we go down that path, what exactly is net neutrality? It is the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Someone who sends a picture file to a friend should have as much bandwidth priority as someone sending a business email. The Internet should be easily accessible to individuals, companies and other organizations and bandwidth should not be limited to any of those groups in favor of another. The term was coined in 2003 as an extension of the common carrier concept with telephone exchanges.

How can this affect you?

So how can this affect you? There are several different methods that an Internet Service Provider (ISP) can use to control its traffic. Bandwidth can be throttled by the protocol it uses, so an ISP can slow speeds for something like a peer-to-peer file sharing network. The FCC went after Comcast in 2009 for deliberately throttling bandwidth to BitTorrent users. IP addresses can also be slowed. This has been more common in Europe where French telecom companies have noticed that most of their traffic comes from Google or YouTube and charged those companies for the excessive bandwidth that was used.

What is feared here in the United States by the average consumer is that a company’s private network can be prioritized over that of a rival. Since Comcast is the local telecom company we will pick on them again. Comcast made a deal with Microsoft that allowed their users to use the Xfinity app to stream television through Xbox 360 without affecting their bandwidth limit. Other competitors like Netflix, Hulu and others were left out of the deal. Comcast also reached a deal with Netflix in 2014 to improve their streaming services and now there is nothing that can prevent Netflix traffic from getting priority over a competitor unless they too pay up. That cost will almost assuredly be passed onto the consumer.

Last is what is potentially the most feared reason for a small business. An ISP can now potentially control how fast a website loads. That means that Comcast can make its own MSNBC site load faster than Fox News but that also means that one of your competitors can pay Comcast so that their site loads faster than yours. In today’s instant virtual world that extra second or two that it takes your site to load can be the difference between whether someone will do business with you or a competitor. No ISP in their right mind will restrict bandwidth to a giant like Amazon or Google since they have the customers visiting the site and the money (and team of lawyers) to keep their pipe clear but small businesses do not have this luxury.

Arguments for net neutrality are numerous and their proponents are vocal about it for the reasons listed above. Those people believe that no company should have the ability to restrict what essentially has become a public utility and that nothing good will come out of removing net neutrality. Not everyone agrees with them.

The argument against net neutrality

There are some people who are against net neutrality and they range from the big ISPs (surprise surprise!) to some of the pioneers of the Internet like Bob Kahn, Marc Andreessen and Rajeev Suri who developed the TCP/IP protocols. One argument against is that the competition of the free market will make the Internet a better place by letting the people choose what they want.

The Internet is also something that is supposed to be free of the hands of Washington or Harrisburg and with corporate giants like Amazon and Google controlling so much of the Internet already the government has not done enough to protect small business and the American consumer with a level playing field. There are also many that simply want the government to get out of the Internet since they seem to have enough trouble just running the country or the state.

Some academics have argued that the Internet needs an overhaul as it has outgrown what it was designed for and net neutrality (along with government oversight) will prevent that from happening. Also by allowing ISPs to do what they want it will stimulate investment and that by prioritizing bandwidth it will ensure future innovation since not all Internet traffic is equal in value. A scientist doing research is doing something more valuable than someone watching Internet pornography and therefore should have more priority they reason. Telecom companies argue that they should be allowed to offer different tiers of service and that will lead to better competition and service all the while driving prices down. Removing net neutrality would also reduce the number of regulations and will remove taxes on ISPs also helping to drive down costs.

Many people fear a potential tiered pricing system but yet we live with that in our everyday life. Here in Central Pennsylvania if we want to drive to Philadelphia or to Pittsburgh we have two options, US 30, which is free but is an expressway for only a portion of its length or the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which is a modern expressway. You have to pay to drive on the Turnpike and many people choose to do so. The same principle can be applied to special HOV EZ-Pass lanes that are becoming prevalent in the Baltimore/Washington DC Metro areas that set aside special travel lanes that you have to pay to use but come with less congestion. A tiered pricing system is not necessarily bad and exists all around us with anything that you can get but have to pay extra for better or faster service.

A big problem with the competition argument

The problem with these arguments is that there is not open competition for consumers here in the United States when it comes to choosing an ISP. Here in Central Pennsylvania we have Comcast and a few smaller ISPs. You cannot choose to go with CenturyLink, Charter, Cox or any of the other major ISPs in the country. Why? Because they have all staked out their territory. Federal regulation prevents any of them from getting too big so they are all content to keep their portions of the country. That means that if you hate Comcast (raise your hand if you do!) and Verizon Fios is not in your neighborhood you have few other options so you have to go along with whatever Comcast does. Only by introducing competition will these telecom giants change, even though they are starting to realize that being among the most hated companies in the nation is not a good thing. At the moment the only thing the American consumer has to go off of is a promise by the ISPs not to act unfairly and that is a promise that many Americans are cynical of. For a repeal of net neutrality to be successful as its proponents have argued the model of competition will need to change and with 5G Broadband’s full implementation in a few years that may prove to be the gamechanger and be just what is needed.

Are these reasons good enough? We will find out as net neutrality has been rescinded. We are entering a brave new world on the Internet and what will happen remains to be seen. As with any change of this magnitude there will always be people for or against it and in many cases these people will be extremely vocal about it with apocalyptic warnings or promises of great prosperity. What happens is usually somewhere in between. The legal battle is just beginning and has the potential to last for years to come so the issue is far from settled.

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