Net neutrality vote means we can all keep on surfing in the free world … for now

27 Feb 2015

Yesterday’s historic FCC vote enforcing net neutrality in the US means the spectre of a two-lane internet has been averted. But telcos may get litigious and in Europe politicians may foul things up yet.

Yesterday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to regulate the internet, and more specifically broadband, as a public utility.

This will ensure that content won’t be throttled or blocked by telcos on an internet divided into fast and slow lanes.

For example people won’t suffer a slow Netflix experience if Netflix or any other digital media company didn’t pay ISPs or telcos massive additional transmission fees.

The new rules also cover mobile data for smartphones and tablets.

In effect the new rules reclassify high speed internet services as a telecommunications service instead of an information service and describe internet access as a public utility.

The chairman of the FCC Tom Wheeler said that the internet was “too important to let broadband providers be the ones making the rules.”

The new rules contain provisions to protect consumer privacy and ensure internet access is available to disabled people and people living in remote areas.

The new rules are guided by three principles: America’s broadband networks must be fast, fair and open.

The FCC said that keeping internet access open means drove a “virtuous cycle” that meant a greater chance for innovation at the edges of the network resulting in greater consumer demand leading to expanded investments in broadband infrastructure.

Thwarting an internet dark age

As the FCC observed the course that broadband providers had been going on, throttling internet services if companies didn’t pay up – as in the case of Netflix and Comcast last year – represented a threat to internet openness and would have ultimately inhabited the speed and extent of future broadband rollout.

No doubt companies like Facebook and Google are celebrating the FCC’s vote.

However, the decision by the FCC could face legal challenges from US internet service providers unhappy with the vote’s outcome because as they see it they are the ones who built the network but over the top players like Google and Facebook are making billions off their investment.

This means that legal sabres are being rattled and if the telcos and ISPs have their way the FCC vote faces reversal.

Calling for light touch regulation a furious Verizon said that the vote imposes 1930s rules on the internet and expressed its umbrage by writing an entire press release in Morse Code.

“Today’s decision by the FCC to encumber broadband intenet services with badly antiquated regulations is a radical step that presages a time of uncertainty for consumers, innovators and investors,” Verizon said.

“Over the past 12 decades a bipartisan, light-touch policy approach unleashed unprecedented investment and enabled the broadband internet age consumers now enjoy.”

Opponents of net neutrality also have support in Europe from none other than German Chancellor Angela Merkel who recently spoke in favour of creating an internet fast lane for certain services.

At a telecoms conference in Gemany before Christmas Merkel called for splitting the internet in two – one for a free internet and the other for “special services.

“An innovation-friendly internet means that there is a guaranteed reliability for special services,” Merkel said.

“These can only develop when predictable quality standards are available.”

Merkel’s comments were described as “catastrophic” by her Social Democrat rivals in Germany.

While proponents of a fair and open internet savour their victory, it could be one that is short lived if telcos with deep pockets and conservative European politicians enter the fray.

Fast lane, slow lane image via Shutterstock

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