(Photo by Matt Christy) Paul Maxwell, CEO at Media-Max Advisors, speaks about net neutrality and what its recent repeal by the Federal Communications Commission could mean at a seminar held at the La Porte Chamber of Commerce and presented by Surf Air Wireless.
Written by Matt Christy
La PORTE — There is an old Chinese curse which says, “May you live in interesting times.”
Paul Maxwell, CEO at Media-Max Advisors, said he believes we are.
A nationally recognized communications industry analyst, Maxwell held a seminar in the La Porte Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday where he spoke on the Federal Communications Commissions repeal of net neutrality and the implications of the decision.
Whether the repeal heralds the end of the open internet or the beginning of a new age of growth, the topic should be one people take the time to understand, because it could very well affect everyone where it often hurts most — the wallet.
But what is net neutrality?
Let’s say you want a cup of coffee. Walking up to the counter, you order one cup. After paying, you’re handed your coffee. The person before you, the person after you, all paid the same price and got the same thing at the same speed.
That is net neutrality.
On Dec. 14, the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality, rolling back regulations which put internet service providers (ISPs) under the FCC’s authority. Under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 and section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, these regulations protected internet users from unfair practices by prohibiting the blockage of lawful traffic or discrimination among content by ISPs.
Under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC will reclassify broadband service as Title I information service, meaning ISPs — companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon — would be subject to less stringent regulation.
But what does that mean exactly?
Lets go back to that coffee shop and order another cup of coffee. This time, after you pay, you’re told you have to wait 20 minutes for your coffee. The next customer pays three times what you paid for the same cup of coffee, only they get theirs immediately. They paid for the “fast lane.” You’re stuck in the slow lane, unless you open up your wallet more.
This is what the repeal of net neutrality can mean.
“(A Title I) can do whatever you want as long as you’re transparently saying you’re going to do it,” Maxwell said, adding the creation of fast lanes for internet service is a likely scenario in the wake of the repeal.
In creating “fast lanes” comes the inherent creation of “slow lanes,” meaning companies and businesses would have to pony up if they wanted their websites to be as easily available and usable as those companies paying for priority.
ISPs could essentially blackmail websites into paying up or having their content throttled, Maxwell said.
The perceived upside in the move to repeal net neutrality is to “give (ISPs) equal standing” with big online companies like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google who profit off the internet, Maxwell said, but aren’t the internet providers.
Those in support of the repeal believe this move will give more money to the ISPs, which in turn will be invested into internet infrastructure and increase broadband capacity for communities.
Opponents though are wary of such promises. “The Book of Broken Promises” by Bruce Kushnick documents a broadband scandal where the country paid $400 million to companies like Verizon, AT&T and CenturyLink for a fiber optic network that never came to be.
“All of this is going to come down to regulating some way of building a balance,” Maxwell said in regard to the ISPs and the giant internet corporations. “How that works out, nobody knows yet, but that’s where the fight really is.”
But what of the small businesses? What of the average consumer? The repeal is seen as a move to put more money into the hands of the ISPs to offset the power of large internet giants, but who is paying that cost?
“It’ll most likely cause me to lose some customers,” said local small business owner Tim Franke.
Franke works in the digital landscape, running Duneland Media where he does web design and digital marketing. He has been following the news and developments in net neutrally and its repeal, knowing the decision will have an effect on him.
“I would immediately feel the effects if different pay structures were developed by the ISPs,” he said.
Creating fast lanes or tiers wouldn’t impact large companies as much as the small, who would have to pay additional costs to continue to work online and use bandwidth, let alone to keep their business visible if content is prioritized based on how much you’re paying your ISP.
“That cost I’d have to trickle down to my customers. Which could hurt me because nobody likes paying more… also it raises the cost of doing business,” Franke said.
Franke understands for many the subject of net neutrality is a confusing one — with those not well versed in technology often feeling overwhelmed by the subject and therefore not always reading into it.
At the end of the day, however, the average person will feel the effects when their internet bill is increased or divvied up based off use and their access is limited.
“That’s when it’s going to really hit home, and by that point it’s too late,” Franke said.
Portugal is a country already operating under a system where the internet service is broken up. Instead of paying one flat rate for internet and using it for whatever you wish, customers instead must pay for packages to use internet for individual purposes. This means paying to use Facebook, paying to use email, paying to use Netflix and more.
“It is a possibly under Title 1,” Maxwell confirmed of ISPs being able to divvy up the internet.
“I actually don’t think we’re going to get to that, but yes, it’s possibly and frankly that is a rational fear,” he said.
Franke fears there are even worse repercussions, however, in the amount of control the FCC is handing over to the ISPs.
“It can turn into pay-to-play,” he said.
Currently, when a search engine like Google is used, an ad often pops up at the top of the search which is paid to Google. But what’s to stop all search results from being paid, Franke asks.
With ISPs able to control and block content, search results could be assigned to the highest bidders.
“It’s giving far too much control (to the ISPs),” Franke said, adding that content people see can be controlled by the ISPs, the companies who own them or the companies who pay them the most money. Bad press, competition and more could be buried under search results or even blocked altogether.
“There is a lot of scary, different ways this can affect you,” Franke said.
For now, the only certainty of the internet’s future is the current obscurity of it.
“It’s a mess,” Maxwell said. “It’s all up in the air.”
Currently, 21 states — not including Indiana — and the District of Columbia are suing the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality along with several advocacy groups.
With the current uncertainty, Maxwell doesn’t believe any major investment in broadband infrastructures will take place until a more long-term road map is cemented for the future.
“Right now, frankly, it’s hard to plan a year out, much less 10 years out,” he said.
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