By: Rebeca Berger
Sean Carver knows a thing or two about technology and the Internet.
After receiving a job offer from Yale University as a research scientist, Carver, who would be working remotely, realized he was missing one critical piece of equipment: a computer.
He went to the nearest Microcenter store to purchase components, looked online elsewhere to learn how to put them together, and built his own computer.
Even with his impressive credentials and tech knowledge, Carver still fell victim to a phenomenon that is becoming more and more present in society today: his Internet speed slowing down.
Carver made a phone call to Comcast when he noticed his service speed falling short to see if they could fix the problem.
“I don’t know if it means anything, maybe the network was busy, but I’m very skeptical of these companies,” Carver said.
Comcast told him to unplug the modem for ten seconds and then plug it back in, Carver recalled, which he said helped fix the problem temporarily. He then left it alone and forgot about it, until the speed irked him enough that he would call again.
“I’m skeptical that Comcast is playing games with me because they have shown me that they do play games,” Carver said. “I could switch service providers, but I don’t know if a new service provider would be any better.”
In 2014, large Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T had control of just over half of the market, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Since 2016, this number has jumped to over 80% control, Forbes reports.
This oligopolistic market has caused a variety of issues that affect both consumers and the Content Service Providers (CSPs), such as Netflix, Google, and Amazon, that own and create the material seen on the Internet.
A visual representation of how Internet content is distributed.
For consumers, this has created minimal options in terms of choosing a service provider that is available in their area, affordable, and grants them access to the aspects of the Internet they need. And, as in Carver’s case, noticeably slower Internet speeds.
For content service providers, a much larger problem prevails. Because they need the help of the ISPs to put their product out to the public, they are also dependent on this market that is being dominated by a few large companies. As a result, ISPs are beginning to charge the content providers extra money to have their content reach consumers faster.
This idea is what is known as net neutrality which has recently sparked debate among consumers, think tanks, and Congress, in addition to the service providers on both ends.
With the exception of ISPs, most people and companies are in favor of net neutrality, meaning that companies should not have to nor be able to pay more to have their content streamed faster. Rather, what is up for debate is how large a role the government should play in controlling these rules.
The FCC regulates interstate communications regarding the radio, television, phone, and Internet industries, which is where net neutrality falls under. Current Chairman Ajit Pai, who was nominated to lead the agency by Donald Trump, wants to roll back the 2015 FCC rules that are in place.
Public Knowledge is a non-profit public interest group that works on access to information, pro-competition policy, pro-copyright reform policy. Its mission statement from its website says, “we promote freedom of expression, an open internet, and access to affordable communications tools and creative works. We work to shape policy on behalf of the public interest.”
Phillip Berenbroick, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, is very clear on their stance on net neutrality.
“We’ve been at the forefront of pushing for strong legally sustainable net neutrality rules,” Berenbroick said. “There are a handful of companies in the broadband ecosystem that control most of the access to retail consumers. Consumers should have choices about what they want to access online, how they access that content, and that content shouldn’t be slowed down or discriminated against based on who owns the content or who’s trying to access it. We think those sorts of roadblocks are problematic from a competition standpoint and from a public access-to-information standpoint, which is sort of the lifeblood of democracy. We used to rely on the daily newspaper or the nightly news for information. Now, we rely on a whole myriad of sources online and access to those sources is critical.”
Public Knowledge saw a victory for their side on February 26, 2015, when the FCC, under former chairman, Tom Wheeler, passed the Open Internet Order by a 3-2 party line vote. Simply put, this order enforces Title II of the Communications Act, and calls for no blocking and no throttling of legal content by ISPs, as well as no discrimination of content or paid prioritization deals of any kind.
However, not everyone was happy with the passing of this order.
Evan Schwarztrauber is the communications director for TechFreedom, a self-described non-profit, non-partisan tech policy think tank, that has a similar view of the net neutrality to Chairman Pai.
“From my perspective, strict net neutrality regulation harms consumers,” Schwarztrauber said. “And I can sympathize with those on the left who think the sky is falling – I get it – you fought very hard for regulation and it’s looking like it’s going to go away. All the more reason for Democrats to come to the table and debate this.”
Despite being on two different sides of the issue about whether the government should pass rules about Internet speed regulation, what Schwarztrauber and Berenbroick agree on is that one of the main concerns regarding net neutrality is the fear of preventing technology innovation and limiting potentially good business models to grow the industry.
“Government actors, regardless of whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, regulators, anti-regulatory people, want to use the word innovation because innovation equals good, universally,” Berenbroick said. “But, it’s hard to unpack what exactly is meant by that. On our side, innovation means creation of new business models and removing barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and new creators and new voices to enter the marketplace.”
Berenbroick continued, “I think while a lot of folks would point towards government as a barrier to innovation in some ways, which in some ways is absolutely true, in the net neutrality space, government is actually more of an entity that can promote innovation.”
According to Schwarztrauber, “I think that a strictly neutral net, where certain potentially innovative business models of zero rating and paid priority are not even explored, they’re not even allowed to be experimented on, that harms consumers.”
Hal Singer, an economist and senior fellow at George Washington’s Institute of Public Policy, says that he formulated his views on net neutrality based on personal experiences testifying on behalf of independent cable networks against vertically integrated cable operators.
“I also consider myself a net neutrality proponent, but I, as an economist, I recognize that if you ban an entire class of business arrangements, whether its paid priority arrangements, or zero-rating plans, that you’re going to throw away not only the bad plans, which we want to be thrown away, but you also ban a bunch of good plans,” Singer said. “[The good plans] don’t discriminate against anybody, they’re well-fair in proving they lower prices and expand output.”
Singer has developed his own solution to the net neutrality issue, which he shares in his discussion forum, “Washington Bytes”, a podcast affiliated with Forbes magazine. He says he wants to bring his ideas to the policy world and that he’s trying to “get people to compromise” and “see my alternative as a way to 1) show respect for the problem and 2) show respect for the economics in refining an approach that would only knock out the bad conduct.”
According to Singer, current net neutrality solutions revolve around ex-ante or ex-post rules. Ex-ante rules revolve around prohibitions – the “no’s” of the 2015 FCC rules. On the other hand, with ex-post rules, there are no prohibitions. Instead, firms such as cable operators are basically allowed to do what they want, and in the event of a complaint by small cable companies or CSPs, they would have an opportunity to have their case heard by an independent fact-finder, at which point, if they prevail, they could get discrimination to end.
However, Singer described that from a policy perspective, none of the solutions stray away from these ideas or explore any of the middle ground.
“There’s a concern that if cable operators have their way, they could make life difficult for the Internet service providers, and thereby discourage them from innovating. So the question is, how do you design a set of rules that protects and fosters innovation at the edge, while at the same time, not being so invasive as to deter innovation at the core of the network by ISPs,” Singer said. “I think the approach that I’m pedaling, which is an ex-post approach—I like to call it a complaint-driven process—would respect the incentives at the core and also protect the incentives to invest at the edges.”
All three of these experts recognize that a general consensus needs to be reached with regards to net neutrality in the near future. They all agree that this issue does not have to be partisan when explained properly, and that action is needed before innovation is threatened or independent consumers experience a severe decline in their Internet service speeds.
While Berenbroick said individual consumers, such as Carver, are not quite yet able to notice a violation of net neutrality, he said there are cases, as heard in the clip below, where companies impeded service speed to all their customers, slowing down or blocking websites temporarily.
As for the future of net neutrality, “This debate is going to be more public. It’s going to be louder and bigger going forward because more and more of our lives have moved online,” Berenbroick said.
“Consumers at the end of the day are like ‘I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong, I just want to make sure I can watch the Superbowl’. They want things to work. They don’t want things to not work and have to take six months to a year to litigate it to make sure they work down the road. People are more invested in their rights online, so I think we’re probably teed up for a large-scale debate over concentration of power, concentration of media, and net neutrality is part of that.”