2017-12-06 / Columns

Net neutrality fight coming down to the wire


On December 14, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on a proposal by its new chairman, Ajit Pai, to reverse an Obama-era regulatory approach to the Internet widely known as “net neutrality.”

Chairman Pai suggests that current regulations treating the Internet like other utilities are outdated and will stifle the ability of Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon to innovate and invest in improvements to Internet service.

Critics, on the other hand, warn that removing these guardrails will allow large Internet service providers to segment data traffic on their wires or fiber optic cables, allowing them to charge consumers more for popular services.

The Internet was designed to be data-agnostic like telephone lines, indifferent to who was connected to whom and what they talked about. Other than the long-abandoned “long distance” pricing of phone calls between regional calling areas, phone service did not discriminate. It didn’t cost you more to call the movie theater than it cost to call a bakery.

That’s currently true on the Internet, largely because the “net neutrality” rules enforce equality and prevent large companies from designing service packages forcing consumers to pay more for some services.

An example of how this might work was recently described by Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times. He described tiering of Internet service in Portugal, where ISPs are allowed to segment different kinds of services (http://lat.ms/2zwoVSv). Different packages of popular Internet sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, are bundled in different combinations with email and cloud storage of files, at different prices.

With the rise of video streaming, Internet service providers (ISPs) have been accused of “throttling” or slowing down services as a way of pressuring content companies in disputes about revenue sharing. In 2014, Consumerist.com reported that Netflix agreed to pay Comcast to resolve speed issues consumers were experiencing

(http://bit.ly/2zxeC0m). It seems Comcast and Verizon weren’t actually slowing down Netflix speeds, but were allowing traffic to bottleneck, instead of the normal practice of managing networks to expand access as needed. It’s a fine point of network technology, but it pretty much amounts to the same thing: Consumers experienced a slowdown in speed and poor viewing quality on the streaming service until Netflix paid for better attention from Comcast.

Comcast and Verizon have both denied any interest in segmenting and bundling Internet access, and Comcast claims that doing away with the so-called “Title II” regulatory scheme doesn’t eliminate “net neutrality” (http://comca.st/2zyJWMo).

But Comcast also doesn’t really commit to keeping all services accessible at the same price point. Its statement says, in part, “we have and will continue to support strong, legally enforceable net neutrality protections that ensure a free and Open Internet for our customers, with consumers able to access any and all the lawful content they want at any time.”

It’s important to note that promising you will be able to access the content is very different from promising that you will be able to access it all at the same price.

It seems like the ISPs’ main objection is being regulated as utilities. But consumers have limited options for Internet access, making data pipes ISPs provide a lot like electric wires or water pipes. For most of us, Internet access is a vital service. Without Net Neutrality, ISPs can exercise what amounts to monopoly control (in Moorestown, NJ, because of pricing disputes, residents don’t have access to Verizon FIOS as an alternative to Comcast as an Internet provider).

Matt Petronzio at Mashable.com explains how to submit your comments to the FCC about net neutrality. You can read it at http://on.mash.to/2zyk7fk.

Email me at steve@compuschmooze.com if you have questions about Net Neutrality or anything else tech. Follow @PodcastSteve on Twitter. 

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