Your Internet Access Could Soon Get a Lot Slower. Here's Why.
Net neutrality is the idea that when you go onto the internet and try to read an article or watch a video, your internet service provider (ISP) should have to give you access to that content as fast as possible under the terms of your internet package. Back in 2015, the Federal Communications Commission finalized a rule requiring just that. Under the net neutrality regulations, internet companies would be prohibited from discriminating against internet content by regulating or throttling speeds. Why would an ISP want to do something like this? There are many possible reasons. First of all, internet providers don't like it when you use their service a lot. Back when the internet was in its infancy, companies like AOL would charge you by the minute for access to the internet. Remember those CDs that would come in the mail with free internet trials? Today, most people pay a flat monthly fee. If you think of the the internet like a system of highways, your internet company owns the on ramp in your neighborhood. That "on ramp" is what is known as the "last mile," the bit of the network that your internet provider owns. Instead of paying for by the minute access like in the 1990s, ISPs today charge monthly fees so you can use that on ramp whenever you want. But ISPs don't like it when you use their service constantly. Bandwidth is the amount of data you are allowed to upload and download every second on your internet plan. These days, that is measured in megabytes (mb) per second. Like any monthly service, the internet company is hoping that you won't use it all day long. They are correct in saying that if everyone used their internet access 24/7, overall speeds would slow to a crawl. Now, it's not a big deal if you just want to use that on ramp every now and then. But imagine if you parked your car on the on ramp and left it there for a while. Or imagine if during rush hour, you took your entire car collection onto the on-ramp to try to get to the highway. Both would slow down the service for everyone else. That is one of the arguments that internet providers make in support of eliminating net neutrality guidelines. They argue that if someone was to take up too much space on the internet's equivalent of the on-ramp, they should be able to levy additional fines to those users. The problem is that reality isn't this clear cut. The current corporate landscape means that internet service providers -- who sell you access to the internet -- have a financial incentive for you to visit some websites and avoid others. Take Comcast as an example. Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which owns the television channel NBC. Comcast also owns a 30 percent stake in the online television streaming service Hulu. So, it is easy to see how Comcast stands to gain financially when its customers watch NBC shows on Hulu. After collecting a monthly fee to access the internet, Comcast companies would also generate revenue from not only the NBC programming but also from the user's monthly Hulu subscriptions. But suppose that Comcast subscriber didn't like Hulu. What if he or she prefers Netflix? Under the current FCC Net Neutrality rules, Comcast has to treat internet traffic to Netflix and Hulu equally. Since the subscriber paid for internet access, Comcast has no say over what (legal) sites they access and how fast they are accessed. If you opened up two identical laptops in your home and watched Netflix and Hulu simultaneously, Comcast would have to let you download each at the same speed (barring any other complications). The proposed rule change, set to be voted on in early December, would remove these guidelines and give ISPs like Comcast the power to throttle internet access depending on what you're trying to access. If you are a Comcast subscriber, you could find that online videos stream much slower over Netflix's service than they do on Hulu. You could also find that Netflix is blocked entirely, or that a pop-up appears on your screen asking for you to enter a credit card number to purchase faster Netflix access speed. ISPs have promised not to do this. Instead of throttling individual customers or extorting them to purchase faster speeds, it is much more likely that they will demand payments from companies like Netflix instead. That, in turn, would mean a higher membership price for Netflix users. Obviously, this applies to more websites than just Netflix, but it makes for a good example of a worst-case scenario for internet throttling. But what if it has nothing to do with bandwidth? What if instead of focusing on how you consume content, internet service providers discriminated based on what you were consuming? Comcast also owns cable news channel MSNBC. Unlike video streaming websites that use a plurality of internet providers' bandwidth, news websites take up next to nothing comparatively. There is no legitimate reason to discriminate between news articles on CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC in terms of bandwidth usage. However, since Comcast owns MSNBC, they stand to gain if you get your news there instead of on other websites.