Wake Up: There's No Such Thing As "Net Neutrality"

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Photo: Kevin Spencer via Flickr

A recent national survey of consumers underscored the business impact of the Net Neutrality issue: it showed nearly a third of visitors will abandon a website after waiting somewhere between one to five seconds, with 27 per cent saying they would then be more likely to visit a competitor’s site.With rare exception, most websites are in heated competition for traffic and simply can’t afford to make visitors wait. But the survey only reflects attitude. What actions do people take? In a tally of over 500 million real website interactions, data measured by Gomez reveals the following:

An extra two seconds of wait time results in visitor abandonment rates rising by eight per cent. For an extra eight seconds of wait time, abandonment rises by 38 per cent. Those are big numbers in today’s highly competitive online world. Of course, a visitor’s willingness to wait varies based on the content. Search engines measure success in milliseconds, while airline customers will wait longer for a detailed list of available flights to appear. In each case leading companies know at which point business is being lost due to slow performing sites.

Millions of dollars are at stake, for some companies, billions, if new regulations allow certain sites to have a speed advantage. So it’s not surprising that major players are jockeying to influence the outcome of Net Neutrality regulations.

Yet while there will always be regulatory considerations, it’s important for businesses to understand the broader picture of the “neutrality” issue: today’s Net is far from neutral and the smarter companies are already getting preferential treatment and ensuring their websites or web-enabled applications are in the “fast lane.”

Abandonment graph

Photo: Imad Mouline

Those companies are paying for a faster Internet with investments across the complex set of services called the web application delivery chain. From the data centre (first mile) to the end-user (last mile), they’re taking steps to make certain the playing field is tipped in their favour.

It starts with well-designed web applications to ensure speed and compatibility with all available browsers. It continues with content delivery networks or other hardware options that can replicate content across many servers or optimise the way content is delivered.

There are also private network access points, which ensure a faster handoff of data between network providers, and a variety of software vendors in the business of web application acceleration. In fact, an entire industry has been created specifically designed to monitor, analyse, optimise and propel data for some companies faster than others.

The Internet is a mashup of many smaller networks, nodes, data centres and access points. Just as your private network might deal with this complexity by prioritizing one data type over another, what steps should you take to make certain your content has an advantage in the broader Internet? And what steps will you take to game the system to your advantage if new regulations are enacted?

The answer will be different for each company, but it’s vital to ask the question in an era when web visitors, now fully accustomed to broadband speeds, get increasingly impatient with slow websites (at a time when they’re also wanting richer content and more complex applications).

That’s why more companies are implementing speed-enhancing solutions in a highly focused and competitive manner; many designed to not simply make their content move faster, but to have the net impact of making a competitor’s site seem to move more slowly. For example, any large business-to-business company can easily target the customers of its largest competitor by placing data centres or content delivery solutions within the geography of those customers. Geographic targeting is a common practice in business-to-consumer planning as well.

Even if “neutrality” is maintained at the network level, the game will move even further to the application level where there’s a huge market for enterprises willing to pay for speed.

So what would your company pay to be in the fast lane? Are you already paying for faster, better execution? How much more would you be willing to pay for, say, an extra two seconds of response time advantage?

The lesson here is clear: every second counts and the more competitive businesses will continue to do all they can to ensure a faster web experience, regardless of the regulatory landscape. If that means lobbying in Washington, that’s where they’ll go. If it means efficient application development, third-part content acceleration, or access points in critical geographies, they’ll invest there as well.

The businesses that don’t measure their success in seconds, or even milliseconds, will lose customers and revenue. The competition will speed past them, and they’ll find themselves truly stuck in neutral.

Imad Mouline is the Chief Technology Officer of Gomez, the web performance division of Compuware.

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