Are proponents of net neutrality failing to recognize its true cost?
At first glance, net neutrality may seem like a simple concept: maintaining a free and open internet that gives everyone equal access. Recent FCC rulings seem to presage an end to that: allowing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) greater say in who has access to what content and how. While this may seem revolutionary, it’s only one battle in a longstanding fight over how the internet ought to be managed. And part of that conflict stems from the ugly truth that we just can’t stop binge-watching Sense8 and Orange Is the New Black.
The FCC plans involve a 2015 agreement that classified ISPs as “common carriers,” a concept that has been previously applied to public utilities like phones, electricity, oil pipelines — even roller coasters. It means that if a company offers a service to the public, it must be offered to everyone. Applied to the internet, this means that all traffic should be treated equally, regardless of content, source, or destination. The ISP doesn’t get to make a distinction between Facebook, Amazon or Netflix — with them all coming into your home at the same speed. However, the demands of streaming video services are causing ISPs to struggle to keep up with demand.
Back to the Future
When the internet was in its infancy, users were charged based on usage, and demand was fairly light. There wasn’t as much content and it wasn’t an “always on” service. Users dialed up, got what they wanted, and logged off. With the advent of broadband that changed, and ISPs began offering “unlimited,” but you might call this the “gym membership” model — you pay for unlimited access but they assume you’ll only use it every so often. However, since more homes now have several devices sharing the same connection and there’s more data traveling through it, demand on ISPs has changed significantly.
Before streaming video, most internet usage occurred in short bursts and speed wasn’t a critical factor. When you received an e-mail or loaded a web page, you only used your internet connection for a few seconds as the page loaded. If the network slowed down, you might have noticed sluggish load speeds but the content still worked as intended. Streaming video is a different beast entirely. Not only does video require a constant connection, it also requires higher sustained speeds to keep the video from stopping or degrading.
Now ISPs want the capability to manage traffic to make more efficient use of the current infrastructure and to ensure that content gets through without straining the network. Picture the internet as a series of roads that ISPs build — on which it’s up to the motorists to stay organized. When there’s not much traffic, it’s less an issue since everyone has plenty of room to maneuver. But when there’s congestion with car traffic, rules (in the form of signs, stoplights and dedicated lanes) can be a crucial part of keeping things moving. What net neutrality prevents — and what the ISPs want — is the ability to better regulate the flow.
If all traffic on the internet is to be treated the same, the internet will either need a massive upgrade to handle increased demand, or more people will feel the effects of congestion. Those in rural areas — who have limited high speed internet — will likely be most adversely affected; the tremendous cost of net neutrality could prove an expensive barrier to them achieving greater access.
Net neutrality proponents say that giving ISPs any control over managing content is the first step toward restricting internet access, and their concerns are justified. Especially as certain ISPs become content providers themselves, the threat is real that they will prioritize their own content and impede or block competitors. But — much like the current debate over healthcare — we have an unsustainable system and we have not yet agreed how it should be fixed. But even if the changes allowed by the FCC mean an end to net neutrality as we know it, the conversation about how the internet is to be built, managed and accessed isn’t over: it’s only just beginning.
Last modified: February 12, 2018