Why Is The Internet In Danger And How Can I Help Keep It From Turning To Crap?

May 16, 2014

The Federal Communications Commission has essentially thrown its hands in the air and is asking for public input for how to solve the open internet/net neutrality/Internet fast lane debate.

The unfortunate thing is how little people know and understand about this very important issue for how the Internet should work.

RELATED: Text of FCC’S proposed rules

First a little background.

This latest round of debate got started early this year when the Supreme Court struck down the FCC’s ‘net neutrality’ rules, saying the commission lacked the authority to enforce the 2010 regulations.

Those rules were put in place to make sure Internet Service Providers couldn’t prioritize certain traffic over other traffic, or simply block others. An example of this would be if Comcast, who now owns NBC and has its own TV services, would decide to downgrade service going toward Netflix or other Internet video in favor of its own offerings. In this instance, they’d be essentially kneecapping a competitor by taking advantage of the fact they provide both Internet and video services.

The Supreme Court did leave an avenue open where the FCC could classify ISPs as common carriers. Essentially that would mean treating networks the same way as phone lines: While a company may lay its wire, the network itself is open to competition because it uses public rights of way.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has tried to strike a balance between solutions by introducing the idea of an Internet fast lane—ISPs would be allowed to charge companies for better access to their networks. One example would be Netflix paying Comcast for better access to its network, but that’s totally never going to happen, right?

In addition, he proposed that ISPs “shall not engage in commercially unreasonable practices. Reasonable network management shall not constitute a commercially unreasonable practice.

This all sounds good on paper, but there are three big flaws:

Kiss innovation goodbye. OK, maybe that’s putting it a little strong, but in addition to what it already takes to get the next YouTube or Netflix off the ground in terms of manpower, ideas and red tape, any Internet video startup would have to also pay the ISP for better access. Otherwise, their customers wouldn’t be able to get the level of service needed for their product to get off the ground.

Did I say ISP? I meant plural ISPs. If one company is going to charge for prioritized access, you better believe there will be others wanting companies to pony up too.

Just the Supreme Court throwing out the FCC net neutrality rules and talk of an Internet fast lane is already hurting the start up market, as venture capital firms are already shying away from video or otherwise data intensive companies.

What is a “commercially unreasonable” practice? In theory any maneuver a company makes could be called commercially reasonable if they are publicly traded. After all, if it’s a move to increase their profits that doesn’t serve customers well, they can still make the argument that it benefits shareholders, who they are legally obligated to help.

No blocking doesn’t require network upgrades. One of the big issues that’s arisen with Netflix on different ISPs has been if the companies’ infrastructure can handle it. All it takes is a switch here and a hub there not being updated, and suddenly there’s just not enough bandwidth to meet demand. If companies are making money on their prioritized network, there’s no financial incentive for them to improve the “slower lane.”

The good news is people have a chance to get involved and have their voices heard.

The FCC is accepting public comment on the issue through September by emailing openinternet@fcc.gov. Thursday’s 3-2 vote on the guidelines was simply a step to open public commenting. If the FCC doesn’t hear a loud enough outcry against these proposed rules, they will become the law of the land and won’t be overturned without a protracted legal fight.

The best solution in my opinion is going back to what the Supreme Court hinted at: Extending common carrier rules to ISPs.

The biggest issue the Internet has right now aside from net neutrality is a severe lack of competition. Most markets have two options: A cable provider that is really fast and an DSL provider that hasn’t upgraded much in the past decade. It used to be that ISPs were required to open their pipes and allow access to local competitors. Over the course of the last decade, however, those provisions have been neutered to the point that competition no longer exists.

If the lines are opened up to competition, most of the issues that have arisen will be resolved. Prices will drop, data caps will be harder to enact, and pay-to-play double-dipping deals won’t happen.

It’s not hyperbole to say the future of the Internet rides on these proceedings. If ISPs are allowed to collect twice from companies connecting to their network—once to connect to the network and once to connect to customers—it’s going to undo what’s made the Internet the powerful tool it is today.