Last Thursday, the FCC, under new leadership, repealed Net Neutrality rules designed to keep internet service providers from creating faster and slower speeds both for their customers and commercial entities using their networks to deliver information or access to apps and websites.
In the simplest terms, the old rules prevented Comcast from slowing down or speeding up internet service for any reason except excessive use. So, when you wanted to visit a website, it would load for you at roughly the same speed as someone on another network. You could always buy faster speeds directly from Comcast if you wanted and they might throttle your speed if you used massive amounts of bandwidth, but for the most part, the service you received was generic: Every website, app and online service got the same speed.
The new rules would allow broadband networks, cable companies and cellular service providers to change the speed of use for ANY service or website they want as long as they disclose it. Opponents of the new rules say that it will create a haves and have-nots on the internet, slowing speeds dramatically for some and leaving them the same for others. But, how does this affect the average person?
Netflix has become the most popular streaming service ever invented. It now produces award-winning series and films as well as beaming access to video content into millions of homes. But, Netflix is in direct competition with most cable companies. Not only does it use a TON of bandwidth (streaming is the largest source of internet usage on many networks), but it swallows up market share from companies who want you staying on their networks (Xfinity On-Demand, for example).
It is not a stretch to think that cable companies might choose to slow the speeds of Netflix or other streaming video services. If the connection is slow forcing shows to constantly buffer or display at a lower quality, people might decide to opt for another service like the one the cable company offers. Of course, what they offer isn't likely comparable, but to them it doesn't matter. This is simply a way to legally squash competition.
Many cell phone companies and cable providers offer some form of music streaming. Those that don't might consider getting into the business now. Imagine for a moment if ATT bought Spotify. What incentive would Verizon have to open its network to Spotify users when it would be essentially giving free access to a rival company's service? The types of mergers of digital technology that once were not much more than an afterthought now represent a real threat to the proliferation of quality streaming services, especially music.
This is particularly true of a service like Pandora, a public company that continues to struggle with funding despite being the most popular streaming music service in the world. Even if a big company didn't buy Spotify, it could sell premium access to Spotify or another service and throttle Pandora users in the process. Allowing companies with deeper pockets to buy better speed and/or force slower speeds on competitors means fewer choices and, ultimately, higher prices for consumers, despite what proponents of the repeal suggest.
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This is perhaps the greatest risk. The website Recode published a map of high speed internet access across the country. For those of us in the fourth largest city in America, you would think there are loads of choices. But in poorer neighborhoods, that isn't always the case. In some parts of Houston, fewer than 65 percent of people have access to high speed internet at home. That means because of lack of resources or, more disturbingly, lack of infrastructure, fewer people are able to get what many of us take for granted making it harder for kids to study and families to obtain basic services.
Farther away from cities, the problem of infrastructure is worse. Fewer companies are willing to service those areas because there aren't as many people living there and there are fewer cell towers and cable transmission lines. So, if you live in Livingston or a poor neighborhood in Houston, you might only have a single cable provider. If they decide to eliminate Netflix, you don't get Netflix anymore.
It is for that very reason that these rules are so important. It is doubtful, as some have worried, that a provider would slow access to a news organization because of its differing political views or block your access to Target because Amazon paid them to do it (though both are absolutely possible under the new rules), but if you were already struggling with a crappy provider in an area of limited coverage, this change could have a dramatic impact on how you use the internet every day.