It’s net neutrality Jim, but not as we know it

24 Apr 2014

The net neutrality debate in the US over a free and open internet or one where internet speeds are fastest for companies willing to pay for them is reaching fever pitch in the US. And it’s not helped by the fact the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is opting for a compromise.

Up until recently the internet was a pretty egalitarian place for internet companies. However, simmering resentment among telcos and ISPs that the networks they built are creating vast profits for born-on-the-internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, while they aren’t getting their share of the pie means they intend to get their dues.

For years, a tense stand-off ensued but the bare bones reality reared its head earlier this year with throttling – slowing down speeds, which in turn affect end performance for customers. Video-streaming player Netflix even had to reach a financial deal with mass media and communications company Comcast in order to resume normal service.

The FCC is preparing to propose new rules today that while on the one hand promise to enshrine net neutrality and ensure consumers don’t pay extra for reasonable quality download speeds, still allow ISPs to give preferential treatment to certain traffic as long as it is on “commercially reasonable terms”, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In other words, it’s a compromise that only delays the matter rather than resolving it.

The big questions are, do the new rules mean ISPs and telcos have won the war for net neutrality and will it mean new products will emerge that will require extra fees for streaming and performance levels consumers may take for granted today?

“Without strong net neutrality, big ISPs can demand potentially escalating fees for the interconnection required to deliver high-quality service,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said recently. “The big ISPs can make these demands, driving up costs and prices for everyone else, because of their market position.”

Net neutrality and the rest of the world

Another question worth asking is if the demise of net neutrality becomes a reality in the US, what does that mean for other geographies, such as Europe and Asia? After all, most internet and telecoms trends have come traditionally from North America.

It’s an interesting question considering all the work the EU, under the leadership of European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes, has done to ban mobile roaming charges by December 2015, for example.

“The European Commission says no to roaming premiums, yes to net neutrality, yes to investment, yes to new jobs,” said Kroes last September when she took the first steps towards implementing the new 26-year single telecoms market plan adopted by the EU. “Fixing the telecoms sector is no longer about this one sector but about supporting the sustainable development of all sectors.”

Fortress Europe might be the bulwark that protects net neutrality as consumers know it, but will it withstand the inevitable tides of change that emanate from the US?

It’s hard to say, but it looks like the new FCC proposals are a victory for telcos and ISPs over consumers and internet sites.

Rainbow Milky Way image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years