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Net neutrality: What it is and what it means for consumers

Joseph A. Konstan

On Thursday, Dec. 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is scheduled to vote on repealing net neutrality.

The debate about net neutrality is essentially over the question of whether internet service should be viewed, and regulated, as a utility — more specifically as a “common carrier” that provides connectivity without regard to the content carried or its source. Such a utility could charge more for higher bandwidth, or higher-reliability connections, or for other “technical” improvements, but could not discriminate among different types of content being delivered over the connection.

Alternatively, without the protections of net neutrality, an internet provider might decide that only preferred (or high-paying) suppliers get high-speed access to a customer. For example, a cable TV company might include high-speed video from its own stations as part of its internet package, but only offer slow (and therefore lower-quality) delivery of video from competitors. Perhaps more concerning, your internet provider might strike deals with certain “preferred” providers over others — perhaps one company’s customers would get special access to YouTube videos, but lower-speed access to Facebook videos.

Why should we care?

There are three reasons to be concerned about the loss of net neutrality.

For most people, the most direct concern may be the ability of internet providers to charge more — effectively unbundling internet service and leading to the need to purchase different “packages” of service for different types of connection. This is possible, though the market will determine whether lack of regulation leads to lower or higher prices for consumers.

A second concern relates to blocking or severely reducing access to some content. While outright blocking seems unlikely, it is certainly possible that providers could provide better or worse access, especially for video and other high-bandwidth communications, based on business relationships. The difference in service quality might nudge consumers in a manner that could be harmful.

Third, if businesses need to negotiate “will carry” agreements with internet providers, then the hurdles to creating new internet businesses become much higher and we will have fewer independent businesses able to succeed. In some ways, we’ve seen this challenge (and the resulting consolidation) in cable television, where an entrepreneur with an idea for a new network may still find it nearly impossible to negotiate carriage across the many different cable providers across the country.

Internet providers’ perspective

Are there arguments against net neutrality? Certainly.

Internet providers argue regulations add overhead to business and prevent them from investing in new services. They also make the consumer-centric argument that unbundling is often exactly what consumers want. Just as cable TV customers might prefer a discounted rate for news without sports, internet consumers might want a package that provides less-than-full internet access as a discounted price. They also make a fairness argument: Why should all the revenue of new internet services go to high-tech companies when they are providing the essential pipelines that deliver that content? 

Of course, even under today’s regulatory regime, we see substantial investment in and improvement of networking, driven by competition. And nothing about net neutrality prevents offering a discounted package of lower-bandwidth internet that would work just fine for email, shopping and online news. The fairness argument strikes at the heart of the notion of a utility — businesses couldn’t profit without roads, electricity, telephone and now internet. But the other utilities are either government supported or regulated to make a fair profit based on investment — not cut free to extract whatever they can from businesses and consumers.

Net neutrality comes down to these questions: Should the internet be considered a necessity like electricity and telephone service and, if so, would we allow those utilities to discriminate in what and how they serve? With the FCC’s decision on repealing net neutrality expected Thursday, consumers will likely have answers to those questions with far-reaching impact.

Joseph A. Konstan, Ph.D., is Distinguished McKnight Professor of Computer Science and Engineering in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering. He is an expert on human-computer interaction who develops and studies technologies related to collaborative and social computing.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/13/2017 - 10:19 am.

    Well….

    Don’t you mean: “What WAS Net Neutrality?”. The FCC is about to abolish it.

  2. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/13/2017 - 09:31 pm.

    A nice objective piece… I just think we have to worry more about Google or Facebook censoring things on their sites…

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