The Forecast

Net Neutrality Rules Published by FCC. What Could They Mean for the Future of the Web?

On Friday the Federal Communications Commission published the first set of rules on Net Neutrality.  After 10 months on the shelf (having been released last December), publishing these rules to the Federal Register is considered a milestone to protect consumers by establishing “rules of the road” for the internet.  The rules are set to take effect on November 20th, but providers like Verizon are expected to challenge them.  And the telecom/wireless providers who’d like to undo them aren’t the only ones who have issues with these rules.  Some say they’re nowhere near strong enough. 

What do these new rules mean for the future of the web?  How will they affect the way we use the internet during the critical beginning of the “Cloud Age,” when internet connectivity has never been more important to us, for our businesses and our personal lives? 

First things first, let’s do a brief review of exactly what this so-called “Net Neutrality”,” or “Internet Road Rules,” issue is all about.

From the Wikipedia.org article on Net Neutrality:

Net Neutrality…is a principle that advocates no restrictions by Internet service providers or governments on consumers’ access to networks that participate in the internet. Specifically, network neutrality would prevent restrictions on content, sites, platforms, types of equipment that may be attached, and modes of communication.[1][2][3]

Since the early 2000s, advocates of net neutrality and associated rules have raised concerns about the ability of broadband providers to use their last mile infrastructure to block Internet applications and content (e.g. websites, services, and protocols), and even block out competitors.

Neutrality proponents claim that telecom companies seek to impose a tiered service model in order to control the pipeline and thereby remove competition, create artificial scarcity, and oblige subscribers to buy their otherwise uncompetitive services.

Opponents of Net Neutrality have long called it a “solution in search of a problem”, claiming that ISPs and telecom companies have no plans to impede performance or block content. 

When the FCC released the rules at the end of last year, Stacy Higgenbottom of GigaOm wrote a great commentary.  To quote the article: 

The New FCC order enshrines three principles as the framework for implementing network neutrality:

-transparency for fixed and mobile broadband providers

-no blocking for fixed broadband providers in general, while mobile broadband providers can’t block competitive services, though blocking apps is fine

-no unreasonable discrimination by fixed broadband providers while mobile broadband providers have to justify their discrimination

To sum up, while the rules protect the current internet, Higgenbottom argues that they fail to address a few key issues. She argues that the FCC merely “punted” by drafting language so full of exceptions and justifications that it’s unclear whether anyone is really protected. It doesn’t suitably address the “mobile future” of the web, and rejects the idea of a single “one size fits all” set of rules.  The order clarifies that the FCC does not regulate the internet, only the means by which people access it. The order does define the FCC’s jurisdiction and authority, but does little to satisfy the nagging questions and concerns that plague us on the consumer end. 

“The rules passed in December are riddled with loopholes,” Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press told PCWorld in an email. “They don’t do enough to stop the phone and cable companies from dividing the Internet into fast and slow lanes, and they fail to protect wireless users from discrimination that is already occurring in the marketplace and that will only get worse.”

What kind of discrimination is he referring to?  How about those issues of tiered service models, artificial scarcity, and tactics to oblige consumers to buy otherwise noncompetitive services?  Those aren’t really happening, are they?  Well, let me think about my AT&T iPhone plan for a moment…

Tiered service model? Check. DataConnect 3GB, DataConnect 5GB at different price points.  Definitely tiered. 

Control the pipeline? Check. 3GB is 3GB any way you slice it.  And those overage charges don’t lie. 

Create artificial scarcity? Check…well, maybe.  It depends on how you look at it. 

Is throttling back network access for some users creating artificial scarcity, or is it a necessary evil to accommodate an ever-growing number of users on the network?  Or just a tactic being used today to condition us to pay more for faster access later on? 

And more importantly, how will these limitations affect our ability to take full advantage of the great stuff that the web has to offer us in every aspect of our lives, compared to how we might if we did have unlimited, unthrottled data access?  And what will our providers do next? 

A lot remains to be seen, but it’s clear that – even if all they do is serve to illuminate other issues – these new rules are at least a starting place toward answering some of these important, difficult questions about the future of the internet. 

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