The Federal Communications Commission recently moved forward on ending net neutrality, or the concept that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally. If the commission’s recommendations become law, Internet service providers will be able to charge for a “fast lane” of sorts, allowing speedier service for certain websites that can afford it (think Netflix, Amazon and Google).
Proponents of net neutrality say that the Internet was created with public funds and that industry juggernauts shouldn’t be allowed to pay for faster service, as such an option would theoretically put smaller companies at a disadvantage and curtail innovation. Imagine you were trying to start up a business to compete against Netflix, and the over-the-top (OTT) content provider was paying for access to the “fast lane” that you couldn’t afford. Why would customers choose a comparatively priced, more mediocre service over the crystal-clear, high-definition, non-buffered stream offered by Netflix?
On the other hand, those in favor of the FCC’s recommendations say that service providers have invested billions in the infrastructure that powers the Internet and need an incentive to continue improving it. With the ability to charge more for a “fast lane,” companies like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast will invest more money in accelerating the speed of the American Internet (currently, it’s the world’s eighth fastest) and getting a return on investment for their shareholders.
No matter what ends up happening with the net neutrality debate, certain providers have already gone out on a limb defending their right to charge customers for faster service. For example, David Cohen, executive vice president at Comcast, recently said that his company has the right to offer a “fast lane” to its partners at a cost. He further stated his opinion that this type of activity “has been completely legal for 15 or 20 years.”
In addition to service providers hypothetically charging partners more money for access to a “fast lane,” Cohen predicts that his company will also adopt a usage-based billing model where customers will have to pay more money when they pass certain thresholds of data consumption. But that change will likely not affect a majority of the company’s customers.
Comcast has been piloting a usage-based billing model in Atlanta, and initial research has shown that customers prefer paying for a preset monthly limit and then paying for additional data tiers over that limit. Cohen said Comcast might initially put a ceiling at 350 gigabytes per month, but that number would increase to 500 gigabytes within five years.
The net neutrality debate appears to be heating up, as the FCC is opening the issue to the public for comment for four months. While some argue that the Internet is now a utility and should be regulated as such, others say the free market should be left in control and service providers should be able to charge whatever prices they want for their products. As OTT content and TV Everywhere both become even more pervasive, the need for bandwidth is going to become greater. While nobody knows what the future will bring, we do appear to be on the cusp of some serious changes.