There is currently a lot of buzz about several core issues surrounding speeds, content, and delivery of internet services in the United States. While the chatter may be enough to make a normal person’s eyes glaze over and prompt them to begin mentally re-categorizing their sock drawer, the issues at hand are truly quite important for anyone in our country who enjoys, relies on, or even simply uses internet services on a regular basis. In this article I will attempt to provide an overview of the important points, discussions, and legal battles on several key issues and do so in such a way that my mother can understand it. It’s a tall order so bear with me…
OK, let’s get one fact out in the open right away. Compared to other developed countries, internet service in the United States leaves a great deal to be desired (to put it mildly). For several consecutive years the Open Technology Institute has conducted a study on global internet service and, for several consecutive years, they have found that the United States has pretty much the slowest and most expensive internet of any developed country. To me, it sounds like the US FCC is taking steps to change that.
In late January 2015 the Federal Communications Commission redefined the word “broadband” as it relates to providing internet service in this country. The old definition allowed service providers to call their connections broadband if the average download speed was at least 4 Mbps*. The new definition of broadband now requires a minimum of 25 Mbps average download speed which is an incredible improvement.
* Mbps is Megabits per second. It’s a measure of the maximum speed that data can travel through an internet connection.
To put this in perspective, according to the online video distribution-site Vimeo, the most basic High Definition video signal requires at least a 5 Mbps connection. A true full High Definition video can require up to 20 Mbps to transmit without flaw.
Since consumers have been conditioned to want and request broadband internet service this new definition should definitely have an impact on overall internet speeds in the United States–particularly in those under-served rural areas.
Net neutrality is the idea that all data on the internet should be treated equally and no data should be given preferential treatment. Typically you have three players in this game:
- Content Creators / Providers — These are the people that actually make the video that you want to watch or the news article that you are reading or the music that you want to listen to. Content Creators can be individuals with their own websites, companies like CNN or Facebook, or media hubs like YouTube, Netflix, or Spotify.
- Internet Service Providers (ISPs) — These are the companies that invest millions and billions of dollars in huge networking equipment to allow data to flow from place to place. The wires and cables and switches and routers and other equipment that ISPs install is actually the physical part of the internet. ISPs can be huge companies that you’ve possibly never heard of such as Level 3 Communications and Zayo Group, or they can be large scale providers like AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, etc., or they can be small local / regional providers like Suddenlink Communications or ACD.net.
- Consumers — That’s me and you–the people who pay a monthly fee to an Internet Service Provider and want to view the content made available by the Content Creators / Providers.
Currently, ISPs do not charge anything to Content Creators except a monthly fee for internet service–just the same as they charge the consumers. As you can imagine however, ISPs want to maximize their profits. One way of doing this would be to charge the Content Creators an extra fee to allow fast speeds through the ISPs network. Any Content Creator that doesn’t cough up the extra money for fast lane access gets all of their data slowed down to a crawl.
The effect in the real world would be that the Consumers would not be able to watch YouTube or Netflix videos, or listen to music on Spotify (for example) without the music and/or videos stuttering and stalling. It could amount to a very poor user experience.
From the ISPs point of view, it costs more money to push more data across the network so why shouldn’t they charge a premium for large & high-speed data transfer?
From the Content Creator’s point of view, they are already paying for the connections they have to the internet and the amount of data they are using so why should they be asked to pay more to allow their data to travel quickly to the Consumer?
Realistically, large companies like Facebook, YouTube and Netflix may not like the idea of paying a tariff for their data, but it would not substantially hurt their businesses to do so. The biggest problem comes in for young startup companies.
Imagine what would happen if ISPs decided to charge these tariffs whenever a company’s data usage met certain criteria. Now further imagine that a company like Instagram is just starting up. Instagram has no revenue stream but people all across the world are downloading the app and going crazy taking and sharing photos which is causing a large amount of bandwidth usage on Instagram’s servers. Suddenly, Instagram’s ISP decides to impose a tariff for the data usage but, because Instagram has no revenue, they cannot pay. Therefore the user experience degrades to the point that no one wants to use the service any more. Instagram’s ISP has effectively killed a business before it even got off the ground.
If data on the internet is declared neutral then this Instagram scenario I just described will not be allowed to happen.
Title II vs. Section 706
At this point in the article I realize that I may have bitten off a little more than I can chew. A full explanation of the Title II debate would effectively double the length of this article. Therefore, I’ll whittle it down to the most basic explanation.
To classify ISPs as common carriers under Title II would allow the FCC to regulate the hell out of the ISPs and force them to work “in the public interest.” On the other hand, Section 706 (of the Telecommunications Act of 1996) would allow the FCC to regulate ISPs moving forward, but there are no existing statutes to which service providers must adhere. Therefore, any new rules that would govern the behavior of the ISPs would take significant time to put in place as well as be directly affected by both the sentiments of the FCC Chairman and any interested lobbying groups.
For a more complete discussion of the Title II debate, please read this article on the Daily Dot which provides a lot more depth to the conversation.
Also, to get information directly from the horse’s mouth, please read Chairman Wheeler’s ideas about protecting an open internet.