I was disappointed to read in the Wall Street Journal Nov. 20 that Ajit Pai, the new(ish) FCC chairman, is rolling back net neutrality. A day later, he outlined his plans in more detail. His decision seems to align with most of those made by the Trump administration: strip away protections for the common man to benefit those already disproportionately wealthy.
Net neutrality, the idea that the Internet is a common carrier, like telephone service, and that all Internet traffic should be treated that same, has been the law of the land since 2015. Companies that send their data “over the top” (poster child = Netflix) are for net neutrality. Netflix gets to cram the Internet with video traffic without having to pay extra to guarantee service. Others that tend to be in favor are Internet-native companies like Google and Facebook. Telecommunications carriers like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T are against it because they would like to charge more for premium services.
So, Pai and his allies are tilting the table in favor of the old line telecom providers. Why this particular set of alliances? The only unifying principle to any of these otherwise inexplicable policy decisions is “destroy anything Obama did.” Obama and his friends were in favor of net neutrality? Then, we’re against it. He liked Silicon Valley? Let’s poke them in the eye.
But the collateral damage in all this will be us, the regular folks out there using the Internet. Right now, we pay a reasonable monthly fee and get access. In a world of escalating privilege, our vanilla service will get worse as premium services get better. The telecom providers are fine with that. They will be able to keep the upward spiral in pricing going by always offering the next higher level of service for just a few more pennies.
In a perfect capitalist system, competition would be the rein on this spiral, but we don’t live in such a system. A new era of crony capitalism is upon us, and there are few enough carriers so that they can collude informally without ever meeting in a smoke-filled room to discuss it. Yes, there is a lot of dark fibre out there, but don’t presume that the carriers will put it into service to keep the lowest level of service usable. In the not-too-distant future, you’ll be paying more for essentially the same service you have now.
For some years, Comcast has been trying periodically to sell me upgraded “business class” service. I’ve never taken the bait because net neutrality was supposedly keeping my “consumer” bits on par with business bits when mixed together during transmission.
And anyway, I wasn’t even getting the 8Mbps down and 1.5Mbps up that supposedly came with my service. I’ve used Speedtest a number of times to check up on my actual rates. In fact, I used it just now, and it gave me a fantastic reading of 33.18Mbps down and 6.31Mbps up. If only! The fact is that your actual speed on the Internet depends on the speed of the slowest connection. So, if that server at the far end is dribbling out bits, that’s how fast you get them. Or if there’s a traffic jam somewhere in the middle, your bits get routed around along with everyone else’s. A simple jump to a server dedicated to measuring speed will give you the absolute ideal reading. Real-life traffic is often much slower.
But now, with the end of net neutrality in sight, perhaps it’s time for me to entertain some of those “enhanced service” pitches. I’ll be like Alice in Wonderland in the Red Queen’s race: running as fast as possible just to stay in place.