In a rare moment of transparency and true representative governance, FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler spent a day in front of elected officials. At a recent hearing before the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Wheeler was subject to a fair amount of criticism, most of which revolved around his recently proposed new rules to enforce Net Neutrality.
Wheeler’s new rulemaking docket has created a whole new arena of debate, not about the merits of “net neutrality,” but about the definition. The proposed rulemaking, released May 15th on the FCC website, has managed to upset both sides of the aisle with a confusing new twist on the open Internet ideal. On one hand, the rules clearly prohibit any purposeful slowing of specific Internet content:
“If the network operator slowed the speed below that which the consumer bought (for reasons other than reasonable network management), it would be a commercially unreasonable practice and therefore prohibited.”
However, by not addressing regulatory rules that manage the flow of information between companies that help deliver vital content to ISPs quickly and the ISPs themselves, some argue the FCC’s rules have left the door open for an Internet “fast lane.” Without addressing this sort of rule, content delivery companies could hypothetically pay ISPs for unimpeded access.
The paradoxical addition of throttling rules and a fast lane left many scratching their heads and asking what exactly the FCC’s definition of net neutrality is. Is it a truly class-free internet or something as simple as a ban on purposeful content slowing?
If indeed the FCC aims to create a class-free Internet, the road ahead for them looks rough. Some argue that a class-free Internet ignores one simple truth: access tiers from broadband providers have created that class system long ago. The more you pay, the faster your connection. And we can take it further still: Buy a faster modem or slicker computer, your Internet experience improves.
The same disparity exists on the other side of the line as well: The more you pay for web hosting, the faster your site will be for consumers. As you might imagine this is big business, with companies like Seattle’s F5 selling billions of dollars of tools for companies to prioritize and manage their online content.
The current debate over net neutrality rulemaking covers none of this. Rather, it exists in a relatively limited piece of the Internet framework known as “the last mile.” The last mile is that space between your Internet service provider (Comcast, AT&T, etc.) and your house. In just this small space, many believe that all data must begin to be treated equally. Unfortunately, the invocation of rules to that effect likely will have some unintended consequences.
When content providers cannot be bothered to pay for the delivery of their media content, it gets treated as equal to all other content. With an ever-expanding library or online high definition movies and games, and the adoption of new quality standards like 4k, online media content will take up more and more space in our pipes. The cost to keep up current speeds can’t be passed on to the services themselves (under the proposed regulations), so consumers will bear the brunt of the increase.
While lawmakers are pondering the definition of net neutrality and what policy implications that definition ought to have, it might serve them well to ask a simple question: If content creators don’t get charged… who does? When they arrive at an answer to this question, only then should it drive their policymaking.
Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org