Currently, when you access the internet on your phone, tablet or computer, you get to view websites and watch video at pretty much the same speed everyone else does. The traffic you create simply by browsing the web is treated equally by the companies that have built the infrastructure of the internet — internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and AT&T, and “interconnect” companies like Cogent and Level 3, which route and direct traffic between you and your internet provider.
This state of affairs, broadly, is called “net neutrality.” Everyone gets the same treatment.
And it’s about to change.
The FCC — which regulates how internet service providers are allowed to handle traffic — said yesterday that it would create new rules that may allow ISPs to treat traffic differently. Some people — companies big enough to pay extra, basically — may get faster internet than the rest of us. Here’s what the FCC specifically said:
The NPRM [the FCC] will propose … that broadband providers would be required to offer a baseline level of service to their subscribers, along with the ability to enter into individual negotiations with content providers. In all instances, broadband providers would need to act in a commercially reasonable manner subject to review on a case-by-case basis. Exactly what the baseline level of service would be, the construction of a ‘commercially reasonable’ standard, and the manner in which disputes would be resolved, are all among the topics on which the FCC will be seeking comment.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler elaborated on that in a blog post today.
The devil, naturally, is in the details.
Instead of treating everyone equally, ISPs will only be required to give you a “baseline” level of service. Some people — again, likely companies rather than individuals — will be able to get faster, better service.
The change came about because a federal court recently ruled that the FCC does not have the power to regulate the Internet the same way it regulates phones. With phones, companies have to supply everyone with the same hardwire service — even if they live way out in the countryside where it’s very expensive to put up the lines. The web used to work that way too — companies had to give you the same service even if you cost them more — but that’s now going to change.
Some websites will get slower Internet services
The big change will be around companies like Netflix. Currently, sometimes almost a third of all web traffic is Netflix’s streaming movies. Netflix often accounts for nearly 50% of all web video streaming at any one time. Over time, companies like Comcast have gotten tired of serving bandwidth hogs like Netflix and paying for the privilege of doing so. By amazing coincidence, the speed at which Comcast delivered Netflix movies started to get slower and slower.
So Netflix reached a deal with Comcast: Netflix would pay Comcast for a direct connection between its servers and Comcast’s, so that Netflix’s traffic didn’t have to go through the interconnect companies. As if by magic, Netflix speeds went up again. (This wasn’t the first time that an ISP has made a major decision like this: In 2007, Comcast blocked BitTorrent and in 2005 Madison River Communications blocked people from making phone calls over the net.)
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is actually hopping mad about this: He believes that all companies’ traffic should be treated equally, and if ISPs are in the business of providing the web service, they should do just that in aggregate — and not pick winners and losers based on the fees they’re willing to pay.
Comcast, obviously, has the opposite view. If it is to serve Netflix at the same prices it serves your personal homepage on About.me, the Netflix is essentially getting a huge service for free, Comcast argues.
‘There is no free lunch’
AT&T has been even more blunt. Netflix has built a business that requires a huge amount of bandwidth, but it doesn’t want to pay for it, AT&T argued recently:
As we all know, there is no free lunch, and there’s also no cost-free delivery of streaming movies. Someone has to pay that cost. Mr. Hastings’ arrogant proposition is that everyone else should pay but Netflix. That may be a nice deal if he can get it. But it’s not how the Internet, or telecommunication for that matter, has ever worked.
The FCC’s impending ruling will change this landscape a bit. It looks as if the FCC will require Comcast and AT&T to offer Netflix et al. a baseline level of service, but companies will be able to pay to get faster service. The advantage, obviously, will go to the richest companies (or the companies whose web apps are so cleverly designed that they use bandwidth in a miserly fashion).
Moreover, today’s “baseline” service may be perfectly adequate for most companies who only publish web sites. But in the future “baseline” broadband might be a bit like baseline 56K dial-up modem was in the 1990s — a miracle at the time, but completely hopeless now.
In other words, it would be the end of net neutrality and the winners would be those who pay to win. Even if you don’t have a website yourself, you could see the effects in the loading times of sites you visit — some could slow way down comparatively.
‘They are flat out wrong’
The FCC says that’s not going to happen. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said:
There are reports that the FCC is gutting the Open Internet rule. They are flat out wrong. Tomorrow we will circulate to the Commission a new Open Internet proposal that will restore the concepts of net neutrality consistent with the court’s ruling in January. … behaviour that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted.
But … as long as some players will be able to pay to get more than baseline service, it looks a lot like the “baseline” will end up being the lowest tier of service, for the web’s low-bandwidth losers.
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