If you care about the internet, you are probably paying close attention to the ongoing battle over net neutrality in the United States.
The country passed a major milestone last week, with the deadline for public input on the subject coming and going. Incredibly, Americans filed 22 million comments – far and away a new record on a communications issue, topping the previous high of four million set a few years ago, also on the same topic.
For the uninitiated, net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers should not unnecessarily interfere with the content that flows over their pipes. Net neutrality protections are designed to keep those providers – telecom companies – from favouring their own services, picking winners and losers or otherwise acting as gatekeepers.
The US telecom regulator, the federal communications commission (FCC), is moving to ditch strong rules put into place under the previous administration, hence the fierce response from the public.
The battle has global repercussions, given how many internet companies start in the United States and grow to become international concerns. Netflix, Amazon, Google, Twitter and so on all evolved into huge businesses because access to their services was not stifled by their local telecom companies.
Without strong net neutrality protection in the US, the next generation of internet services could be jeopardised, which would literally affect everyone in the world. Faced with that reality, it is a no brainer that everyone – no matter where they live – should be cheering in favour of preserving the existing rules.
But what if the opposite, where the FCC does kill off the protections, actually leads to better results in the long run? There is the unheralded possibility that doing so could result in a freer internet that is also less expensive for people to access.
Here is how the scenario could play out. If the protections are scrapped, US telecom companies will be emboldened to start experimenting with prioritisation of different kinds of traffic, which also means the de-prioritisation of other types.
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They may start demanding more money from Netflix or Spotify for transmitting their data, which in turn could lead to higher prices for the end users of those streaming services. The telecom companies could also start slowing or blocking video or communications services that compete with their own products.
They promise they would not do any of this, but history has given consumers plenty of reason not to believe them. Internet and wireless providers the world over have blocked, slowed and attempted to extort all manner of online services for years, and continue to do so even as they swear the opposite.
So what is to be gained with US regulators rubber stamping such malfeasance?
How about the likely reaction, which would finally be a concerted move to disintermediate telecom companies from the entire process once and for all.
Consumers and internet services – Netflix, YouTube and the like – currently have no choice but to go through intermediary telecom companies to connect with each other because those firms own the pipes. But it does not have to be that way and it probably will not be the case forever.
There have been a few attempts to cut out the middle men. Google, for example, tried rolling out its own fibre networks in the United States before deciding it was too expensive. The company has also experimented with delivering internet access via high-altitude balloons through its Project Loon effort. Facebook has run similar experiments with drones.
Both companies, as well as Microsoft, are also looking into “white spaces”, or the unlicensed portions of the radio spectrum that exist between the parts reserved for commercial television, radio and mobile phone usage. The companies believe it is possible for people to connect to the internet using these unlicensed blocks at little to no cost, without interfering with the licensed segments.
So far, all of these efforts have been half-hearted. But there is nothing like lighting a spark to get a fire raging, which is what the removal of net neutrality rules would do.
Clear the runway for anti-consumer and anti-internet behaviour and it will happen. When it does, efforts to develop alternative ways of accessing the internet without having to go through telecom companies will kick into high gear.
These alternatives would be developed by parties that have other interests than pure profit, which could mean dramatically cheaper access for consumers. Profit margins for internet providers have been estimated to be as high as 97 per cent – imagine shaving a good portion of that off your bill.
Strong net neutrality protection is obviously a desirable goal, but it will not solve the real underlying problem. Regardless of country, the issue is that the bottleneck always goes through a profit-hungry telecom company.
Keeping the internet free from interference and making it more affordable to access is going to require more than a few rules. It is going to require the creation of different ways to get on to it.
Ironically, the internet as we know it may need to be destroyed in order to provoke the creation of better – and cheaper – ways of accessing it.