Originally published at ConsumerBell
A recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission about what is affectionately referred to as “Net Neutrality” will have significant impacts on you, the consumer, in days to come; the wild card here is whether those impacts will be to your determent or benefit.
The five-panel regulatory commission voted 3-2 to establish a new framework regulating how Internet Service Providers, such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, handle traffic flow on the net, particular as it comes to content such as video and peer-to-peer downloading. The ruling also split the Internet in two by creating a category for “fixed” broadband service such as cable and DSL, and “wireless” broadband service which applies to mobile devices.
Under the new rules, “fixed” services will be regulated to a certain degree while “wireless” services will continue to be a no-man’s land, ensuring consumers no protection if those providers decide to restrict access to content, websites, or the Internet in general.
Consumer rights and technology advocates, along with content providers like Google and Netflix, have been pushing for the FCC to establish a net neutrality framework. Regulation is needed to ensure access and traffic equality on the net by preventing ISPs from intentionally slowing down traffic to non-favored websites, enacting “toll booths” in order to access traffic-intensive content and from outright blocking certain websites.
Although this kind of interference by ISPs is not widespread, two recent incidents have provoked the ire of net neutrality advocates: a move by Comcast to intentionally slowdown BitTorrent (peer-to-peer downloading) traffic, and a collaboration between Google and Verizon to increase the traffic speed for websites where the owner pays for the privilege.
Here’s the skinny on the FCC decision:
Both fixed and wireless service providers must disclosure network management practices to the public, providing a layer of transparency never before available – a win for consumers.
Fixed ISPs will be banned from blocking “lawful content, applications, services, or no-harmful devices” and must not “unreasonably discriminate” in transmitting lawful network traffic – with a few narrow exceptions. Translated: companies like Comcast cannot prevent you from accessing particular content if its lawful or slow down legal traffic.
This does, however, give a green light for ISPs to block or restrict traffic from illegal content websites where you can download torrent files, such as ThePirateBay. BitTorrent and P2P traffic can also be intentionally slowed since the content, for the most part, is considered illegal.
A fixed ISP can interfere with traffic or block websites under the Reasonable Network Management exemption if one of the following applies: to ensure network security and integrity (think Denial of Service attacks), if the consumer has requested certain parental controls on the net, and to reduce or mitigate the effects of congestion on the network.
It’s this last point that is blurry. As ISPs have long claimed streamable content websites such as Netflix and YouTube increases the overall congestion at the point of delivery (think what happens to your Internet connection if you’re streaming an episode of Bones while downloading songs from iTunes and uploading pictures to Flickr or Facebook). It’s unclear how this last point could be interpreted by ISPs, whether traffic could be slowed down during peak hours of net usage or whether they can charge the consumer during those hours.
Overall, the new rules on fixed broadband usage is a win for the consumer. Although the FCC made no specific decision about whether or not ISPs can charge the consumer for better access to websites, or charge companies and users to allow faster traffic to their site, the ruling did mention such an activity, called “pay-for-Priority” is unlikely to pass the “unreasonable discrimination” test, but that will be a matter for the courts.
Wireless broadband service is a major loss for the consumer. Much of what the FCC approved strikingly resembled what Google and Verizon have advocated for since August – minor regulation of the fixed Internet with no control on wireless access.
The FCC justified its decision by claiming there isn’t enough information to support what kind of wireless service regulation will have on innovation or on the infrastructure. Unlike fixed broadband, the infrastructure required to provide wireless service is much more fragile and unable to accommodate large levels of traffic. This makes streaming videos on your iPhone, for example, more of a burden on these systems than on your computer.
Since the FCC chose not to provide any protections to the consumer for mobile devices using wireless services, the plan by Google and Verizon to charge the consumer for premium content, particular competing content, can go forward unabated. This could lead to a gold rush on the wireless broadband front, where alliances between content providers and ISPs are forged in order to get favorable terms and exclusive content – all to the detrement of the consumer.
In fact, this is already beginning to take shape. Comcast and NBC Universal, which owns a number of television stations and the online video service Hulu, have been in merger talks since the beginning of the year, and it looks like the FCC is going to approve the merger.