Despite recent, highly publicized decisions by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the issue of Net neutrality still looms large in the U.S. In fact, now is a critical time for everyone — especially those of us in the media and marketing industries — to become educated on an issue surprisingly few Americans are even aware of.
Where the Issue Stands
In its simplest terms, Net neutrality is the belief that all data on the Internet should be treated equally. No one organization (or groups of organizations) can decide that one type of data is handled differently than the others. While the debate has gone on for over a decade, current events have brought the issue to the forefront.
Last month, the FCC voted to put a proposal up for public comment. One of the main components of the proposal is the creation of a “fast lane,” via which Internet service providers (ISPs) could offer Web companies (such as Netflix and Amazon) faster data speeds. Of course, companies would have to pay a higher price for the higher speeds.
The FCC is also considering reclassifying Internet service as a “Title II” public utility, similar to telephone, gas, electric and water. This means the FCC could more heavily regulate Internet service and ISPs.
Implications for Marketers, Media & Consumers
If Net neutrality supporters’ predictions are correct, an Internet fast lane could harm smaller media outlets. For example, news websites feature a great deal of video content. If a larger news station can upload and display video faster than its smaller counterpart, the larger station has an obvious advantage.
There is also the chance that the higher prices content providers pay to ride the fast lane could get passed on to consumers. This past February, Netflix struck a deal with Comcast for higher data speeds. Three months later, Netflix announced a $1 monthly price increase for new members.
Point: ISPs Get Upper Hand
Proponents of Net neutrality argue that the Internet is a necessary part of Americans’ everyday lives. Although the FCC proposal stated that an Internet fast lane must not be anti-competitive or harm consumers, they claim an Internet fast lane would shift the balance unfairly in favor of ISPs and those who could pay the ISPs’ higher rates. Those who couldn’t afford to ride in the fast lane would have their freedom of speech and ability to share their ideas severely limited.
Net neutrality advocates also point out that the U.S. already lags behind the rest of the industrial world in terms of broadband infrastructure. They contend that shifting the rules in the ISPs’ favor would give them little motivation to improve the situation.
While Net neutrality supporters claim a fast lane would stifle innovation, there is also a possibility that it could spur creative thinking. If the slow lane is slower than today’s standards, a new class of startup could emerge that offers alternative ways to boost Internet speeds.
Counterpoint: Bandwidth is Finite
Opponents of Net neutrality point out that broadband Internet is a finite resource, and those who use more of that resource should pay more than those who use less. It obviously costs money for ISPs to build infrastructure and increase bandwidth, and Net neutrality opponents claim that too much regulation would discourage them from making these improvements.
Critics of Net neutrality also believe that regulations are being pushed through too quickly. They say the FCC hasn’t completed a proper cost-benefit analysis, and there isn’t enough evidence that there is even a need for such regulations.
Stay Informed, Share Your Opinion
We could write countless articles speculating how this debate could turn out. Until additional information is released, and the FCC makes its final decision, the best brands and consumers can do is stay informed and make their voices heard — regardless of their stance on the issue.