The issue of net neutrality as an effective policy has been widely debated for some time now. The concept being, in short, that internet service providers (ISPs like Comcast, Verizon etc.) should not be allowed to slow down, speed up or block any legal content accessed by consumers. In other words, all internet traffic should be treated equally. The ISPs provide the “pipe” that pumps the “water” of internet content out to consumers. Net neutrality means the pipe should simply provide the water at the agreed rate regardless of quality, preference etc. The most recent comprehensive set of regulations to make net neutrality possible in the U.S. were formally put in place back in 2015.
On November 22nd of this year the chair of the U.S. federal communication commission, Ajit Pai, announced a proposal to repeal these regulations in an attempt to stop the government from “micromanaging the internet” as Pai states. Those in favor of the repeal see it as an opportunity for ISPs to offer more options to consumers with less government interference. Those against the repeal see it as a means for ISPs to prioritize content and services that grow their bottom line while impeding competitors at consumers expense.
The big concern here is that the internet may become tiered in such a way that speed and access will be prioritized for the content providers and consumers with more money. The debate seems to put ISPs at odds with online content providers. The fear for many is that ISP’s payment structures and content offerings may become similar to how cable providers offer channels on tiered packages (imagine basic, preferred and premium packages but for internet access). The interesting thing here is that online content providers like Hulu, Netflix etc have seen impressive growth recently, but ISPs have struggled to keep up with consumer demand while providing the very vehicle content providers used to gain their growth. It is for this reason that many ISPs are so interested in gaining a piece of the content business. It’s one thing to own the “pipe” but to also own the “water” is another story completely. It’s no wonder then why content providers overwhelmingly support net neutrality while ISPs are against it.
Telecom companies Comcast and Charter, while against the current regulations, have already made commitments to voluntarily adhere to net neutrality rules in principle. Their issue, allegedly, isn’t with an open internet but with government regulation categorizing telecom services as a utility which limits their ability to make pricing more flexible for consumers. Both content providers and ISPs have something to potentially lose or gain with the change in regulation. Content really is king when it comes to the internet. With more ISPs gaining more interest and ownership in the content provider space, can these companies really ensure that they won’t prioritize their own content to help their bottom line without regulation in place?
The real question here is can a free market be enough to ensure that the largest and most influential marketplace in the US is both competitive for companies and fair for consumers?