The FCC Appears to be Letting ‘Net Neutrality’ Die. Here’s Why That Matters.
A new rule from the Federal Communications Commission
lets Internet providers charge other sites
for faster delivery of their content
to their subscribers.
[And Yahoo executives wish they’d paid extra for express routing of this story.]
This illustrates the worst-case scenario of the proposal the FCC began sketching out last week: In rewriting net neutrality rules that were punctured by a court ruling in January, it would allow “commercially reasonable” paid prioritization deals. In other words, rich companies could fork over money to Internet providers to ensure that their high-bandwidth traffic like video would arrive at high speed. Others? Maybe not.
Early reaction has been none too kind. Think headlines like “The FCC doesn’t want to destroy net neutrality, but it’s going to anyway” — which ran atop one of the less pessimistic stories, a nuanced explanation by Stacey Higginbotham on GigaOM.
Under this new regime, the warning goes, while big-name companies would pay for elite status to lock in their privileged positions, smaller competitors would be left apologizing for their lagging performance, while startups would starve for funding as investors get spooked.
And executives at Big Telecom will mutter “Excellent!” as they spend their bonuses, secure in the knowledge that they face little effective competition.
It’s a real risk. And I was reminded of it in very real terms when Netflix paused and rebuffered repeatedly over the weekend, even though my Verizon FiOS connection delivers more than enough bandwidth for an HD stream. Then on Monday, Netflix announced that it had agreed to a form of paid prioritization with Verizon.
What we don’t know
But this worst-case interpretation deserves closer inspection, because there are some facts that we don’t yet know.
The biggest unknown in the doomsday forecasts is the experience that would befall sites and services that don’t pay for an upgrade. If the FCC leaves that up to Internet providers, then we really are on the way to stratified Internet.
But as Higginbotham’s post notes, the commission is considering requiring a minimum level of service in addition to banning providers from blocking sites. If that floor is high enough — at an optimistic extreme, to ensure reliable streaming HD video — then paid prioritization might come into play only for extravagances like Netflix’s venture into 4K “Ultra High Definition.” Or maybe faster lanes wouldn’t be economically viable.
A lower or vaguer baseline, however, would give startups and their potential funders the heebie-jeebies over what they might have to pay to unavoidable, under-accountable Internet providers.
“This is a very bad idea,“ wrote John Backus, managing partner of New Atlantic Ventures. “It is a huge boondoggle for anyone that owns pipes because they can basically auction off delivery times/speeds.”
A second unknown is the FCC making Internet providers disclose the principles governing their plumbing. If these transparency requirements expose details like peering and interconnection deals, it would be more obvious who’s to blame for these holdups.
“Aside from outright blocking, it’s extremely difficult to establish when a broadband provider is engaging in any sort of throttling or prioritization of traffic,” wrote Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson. He noted that’s especially tricky in wireless networks — which have been under exceptionally permissive net-neutrality rules since 2010.