Will Slower Mean Faster for Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality

Will Slower Mean Faster for Net Neutrality?
| published September 6, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

This week—beginning on the morning of September 10—dozens of major internet and technology companies will protest a potentially slower internet by…well…slowing the internet down.

Spoiler alert: it’s a symbolic act meant to demonstrate, through carefully crafted but annoying animations, what the internet of the future will look and feel like thanks to a recent FCC ruling allowing some major internet providers to control the upload and download speeds of some services—that is to say those services which do not agree to pay premium fees or enter into partnerships with the big ISPs.

Companies participating in the protest will include Kickstarter, Wordpress, Foursquare, Mozilla, Reddit, Vimeo and a dozen others. Starting Wednesday, users of these services will encounter animations which will seek to replicate the slow speeds web users can expect in an age in which a few internet companies have traffic control over the hundreds of other smaller companies.

At issue is a recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which reinterpreted its 2010 rules, which back then required that internet providers insure free, unfettered lanes for all broadband internet traffic—regardless of content or context. After a series of court challenges, an appeals court later decided that unlike utility companies and telephone companies—for whom services are considered a public trust and an essential economic tool—cable TV and wireless phone companies do not fall into this same narrow category, but are instead a consumer-based, supply-and-demand driven business model. According to the appeals court, cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, Sprint and Charter can charge whatever rates these companies see as appropriate based on traditional market factors.

Shortly afterwards, the FCC agreed and essentially endorsed the view of the appeals court, triggering a wave of deals where companies dependent on bandwidth and high internet speeds negotiated agreements with the big cable providers and cellular companies. The most prominent of these quick arrangements was the deal between Netflix and Comcast, wherein Netflix would pay an undisclosed tariff for access to bandwidth.

Smaller web-based and tech companies say that the internet should be an open, unfettered superhighway—and access to its traffic flow should not be contingent upon a few large companies paying more for the fast lane while everyone else is stuck in traffic. But Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, AT&T and others say that if they are paying to construct and maintain the highway, then they ought to be able to regulate not only the flow of that traffic, but also how much premium and non-premium users will pay. Think of those “fast-lanes” for visitors to Universal Studios in Orlando: some people pay more for the right to not stand in a one-hour line.

Proponents of web neutrality insist that a tiered structure for internet access will inhibit the growth and success of start-up companies, quash many forms of competition, and discourage technological development. It will also strangle innovation, since many forms of web innovation have emerged via experimentation and trial-and-error on the part of start-ups with little, if any, access to capital investment. In the future, a company’s success might be entirely dependent on how much it is willing to spend to insure unfettered web access. In this view, the quality of a developer’s product or the strength of its innovation would become secondary to the inventor's ability to strike a deal with big ISPs.

Further, some fear that a non-neutral web would result in similar price-tiering for web users and most Main Street customers, not to mention small businesses. Some cable companies already charge a two or three-tried rate structure for internet access.

Freedom of the press advocates also express a separate concern that a non-neutral web could—and likely would—be used to limit access to information, to censor news, or simply to constrain or inhibit unpopular content or alternative points of view. Some fear even outright blockage of some websites.

The non-profit organization Fight for the Future has an online petition—already signed by hundreds of thousands of people. Other organizations have already gathered as many as one million signatures.

The general concept of net neutrality has its roots in technologies from previous centuries, most notably the telegraph lines constructed in the 1800s—lines which allowed for quick communication over hundreds of miles of wire. Telegraph lines were initially built by different companies in a variety of regions, but ultimately—though mergers and acquisitions—two mega-companies emerged: American Telegraph Company, and Western Union. Western Union won a government subsidy in 1860 to construct the first coast-to-coast lines, and upon the completion of those transcontinental wires in 1865, Western Union had considerable sway. By the end of the next year, Western Union had bought most of its rivals and had become a de facto monopoly. Its business model improved as it took great care and effort to insure that all wire communications were transmitted equally. However, Orton also revamped Western Union’s technologies to accommodate inventions by quasi-competitors (like Thomas Edison), and by improving service to his three key customer markets: businessmen and large businesses, which transmitted reports and data by wire; newspapers and magazines, which relied heavily on dispatches sent via wire service; and government officials and government field offices, which reported to regional offices or to Washington. In that sense, Orton’s incarnation of the telegraph service offered a tiered product line, as well as open and unfettered access to individuals.

Nevertheless, Congress sought to create a framework of neutrality for the telegraph though the Electric Telegraph Act of 1860, in which it wrote that “messages…from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either end of its terminus, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception, excepting that the dispatches of government shall have priority.”

There are those who argue that net neutrality is a red herring and a distraction from the realities of the marketplace. Robert Pepper of Cisco Systems says that “supporters of net neutrality regulation believe that more rules are necessary."

"In their view," says Pepper, "without greater regulation, service providers might parcel out bandwidth or services, creating a bifurcated world in which the wealthy enjoy first-class internet access, while everyone else is left with slow connections and degraded content. That scenario, however, is a false paradigm. Such an all-or-nothing world does not exist today, nor will it exist in the future.”

Further, some large internet service providers have made the point that by creating a flat, featureless internet—without tired pricing and without specially arranged packages with companies in need of wide swaths of bandwidth—big ISPs will have neither the incentive, nor the capital, to upgrade services or invest in improvements. The big players argue that many companies—especially other large web-based services like Google, Skype and Facebook—freeload by using vast tracts of spectrum and creating massive online demand—without actually having to install even a mile of broadband cable, Ethernet, fiber-optic or coaxial wire.

In the meantime, the voices are raised largely in favor of a more pure definition of net neutrality. The question remains: will this week’s protest—deliberately slowing down the web—actually make things move faster?

Related Thursday Review articles:

House Votes to Keep Internet Tax-Free; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; July 16, 2014.

Net Neutrality: Is Some Web Access More Neutral Than Others?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 11, 2014.