Age of the Geek

Net Neutrality And The Best Of Bad Options


     Well, there goes another hit against net neutrality.

     The United States Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Verizon against the Federal Communications Commission this week, denying that the agency has the authority to impose net neutrality regulations.

     If I lost you in that sentence, the important takeaway is, "Verizon won in court." If you see those four words and assume this means something bad, then we're on the same page.

     Net neutrality is, put simply, the assurance that all those little bits and bytes of data shooting through the Internet are treated equally. No matter if you're streaming a movie on Netflix, uploading a PDF to business partners, or watching that other thing we all know the Internet is for, net neutrality makes sure all data on the information super highway travels on the same roads at the same speed.

     Without net neutrality, our loving and benevolent Internet service providers are free to restrict access to content they deem non-beneficial to their bottom line. Or they can impose content providers with additional fees in order to get preferential treatment.

     In other words, if the information super highway was an actual highway, they could start designating lanes as "toll roads" and start pulling over cars of a particular model.

     Netflix, for example, is responsible an astounding amount of Internet traffic. Service providers could slow down or cut off Netflix from their subscribers unless they are paid an extra fee.

     And it doesn't stop there.

     Time Warner owns both Warner Bros. and Time Warner Cable. How convenient would it be if all of the Time Warner Cable subscribers suddenly found they could only stream Warner Bros. movies in high-def, while Disney pictures struggled with constant buffering.

     Or, let's bring things closer to home. Say a service provider decides they want to start charging for "premium speeds." Such a charge may not be a big deal for our giant corporations, but if you're a small business owner with an online presence, say, that could be another expense for you. That is, if you want your customers to be able to load your page in under a minute.

     Oh, but don't worry. The court of appeals is sure that the free market will take care of all this.

     "Consumers, of course, have options; they can go to another broadband provider if they want to reach particular edge providers or if their connections to particular edge providers have been degraded."

     That is from the closing statements of Judge Laurence Silberman, sharing all the wisdom and insight one would expect from a 79 year-old man talking about the Internet.

     Unfortunately, for those of us in reality, things aren't that easy.

     Choosing between service providers is already a choice between nothing but bad options. I discovered that this is just as true in San Diego as it is here.

     And that's if you're lucky enough to live in an area with more than one option at all.

     Right now, as I set up in Hampton, I'm debating between staying on CenturyLink or switching over to Mediacom for my Internet needs.

     CenturyLink is glorified DSL, which means its top speeds are barely sufficient for me (and not at all sufficient if I want to do live streaming, in spite of what their sales representative assured me).

     Mediacom offers higher speeds, but bundles them with cable television packages that I have no use for.

     Both groups impose monthly data limits on their customers, which are easily reachable if you watch as much streaming video as my roommate and I do. And just to emphasize how much these companies care about their customers, neither one has been upfront about their data limits, even when I described my level of usage to their representatives.

     When I ordered service from CenturyLink, data limits never came up. I wouldn't know they had one at all if I didn't research it after the fact.

     Likewise, when shopping around with Mediacom, the sales representative twice tried to get me to sign up before I could even ask about a data cap. Naturally, I had to be the one to make the inquiry.

     If service providers won't be upfront about their data limits, does anybody really expect them to be upfront about what content they degrade?

     And even if a customer is informed, that doesn't do them any good when the only options are different flavors of bad.

     The idea that the free market will take care of things if service providers start abusing the lack of net neutrality regulations is laughable. If that were true, it would have happened for a hundred other reasons before now.

     Internet users don't lack reasons to leave their current provider. They lack viable alternatives.

     Fortunately, the net neutrality fight isn't over quite yet. The FCC still has some plays they can make and we'll no doubt see more court cases in the future. I doubt anything too extreme will happen yet, but it's worth keeping an eye on.


     Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and really wants Google Fiber.