FCC Net Neutrality Rules: Can Internet Slowdowns Be Avoided?

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Net neutrality is in the news again, as the FCC released the Open Internet NPRM (notice of proposed rulemaking) on May 15. While many blogs and news stories have dramatically caught our attention by insinuating that these rules and regulations are a done deal, an NPRM is actually a call for comments from the public. While the FCC is attempting to create regulations that would prevent an Internet provider from slowing down or limiting access to any (lawful) Website on the Internet, a portion of the proposed regulations includes the possibility of offering large “edge providers” (Web companies like Netflix, Google or Amazon) a fast-lane access to the Internet customers. This idea is what has everyone up in arms.

By allowing companies to buy fast Internet, many claim that big companies will have an unfair advantage over smaller start-ups, who would have to settle for the standard advertised speed offered by their Internet package. It’s not that the Internet will be slowed down for these other web providers; it’s that the big companies will get more bandwidth to go faster.

In January, I reported, in my blog about net neutrality, that a U.S. District Court ruled that Verizon could offer varying speeds of Internet, saying that the FCC did not have the authority to make or enforce rules regarding the Internet. That opened the door for fast-lane deals between Internet providers and big web companies. Netflix was quick to jump on an open connect (fast lane) deal with Comcast that provided direct access to Comcast customers.

Before we judge Netflix for taking advantage of this deal and setting a precedent, we might consider the circumstances. Just before the deal between Netflix and Comcast, customers had noticed a sharp decrease in Internet speeds. There was speculation that the slowdown may have been intentionally created by Comcast in order to gain leverage, so Netflix would have to make the deal to maintain the bandwidth it needed to continue smooth high-definition streaming and to roll out its 4k streaming option.

According to the Open Internet NPRM, Netflix accounts for 67% of peak evening-hour Internet traffic. And, as anyone with broadband has experienced, Internet speeds drop dramatically during peak hours. This begs the question, how do we know if a decrease in Internet speed has been created by the Internet provider’s preferential treatment or if it is due to increased Internet use by subscribers? And, if streaming Netflix has been the cause for decreased speeds when using other parts of the Internet, might it not be a good idea to give them a sort of “HOV” lane? In this case, the rest of the Website traffic could continue to flow at the speed limit (the speed promised by your provider’s plan).

Still the FCC is questioning how much of this Internet slowdown is due to actual web traffic, and how much is being used to the advantage of Internet providers (think Verizon allowing its RedBox video service faster speeds for streaming). If the FCC can’t stop fast-lane deals, the Open Internet NPRM is looking into other ways to prevent an Internet provider from giving preferential treatment to Websites. The NPRM includes rules for transparency where the Internet provider must inform its subscribers of the cause for the slowdown when speeds drop below their subscribed plan.

The hope of these transparency rules is that an informed subscriber can choose another Internet service. But wait: It is unlikely that you will have another Internet provider option in your area. Similar to cable providers (and often the Internet providers are the broadband cable providers), political pressure has ensured that big cable companies have a monopoly in certain cities or neighborhoods.

But we need competition. The FCC explains how the "virtuous circle of innovation" works:

“In the Open Internet Order, the Commission specifically found that the Internet’s openness enabled a 'virtuous circle of innovation' in which new uses of the network—including new content, applications, services and devices—lead to increased end-user demand for broadband, which drives network improvements, which in turn lead to further innovative network uses.”

For example, the Commission explained that innovative streaming video applications and independent sources of video content have spurred end-user demand, which in turn has led to network investments and increased broadband deployment. By contrast, the Commission reasoned, “'restricting edge providers’ ability to reach end users, and limiting end users’ ability to choose which edge providers to patronize, would reduce the rate of innovation at the edge and, in turn, the likely rate of improvements to network infrastructure.”

Because the Internet has become an important utility used by 87% of Americans for everything from education to news, and because people may not have a choice of providers, it is increasingly important to keep watch over the practices of Internet providers. The FCC must be given the authority to make rules that protect the public’s access to the Internet. Unlike its problems enforcing rules in the Verizon case, the FCC’s authority must hold up in court. To that end, the FCC is seeking to reclassify broadband Internet under traditional common-carrier telecom regulations in Title II of the Telecommunications Act. A number of Congress representatives are seeking to stop the FCC’s reclassification, and therefore its ability to enforce regulations on the Internet.

This is a complicated issue. But if you believe in net neutrality, and if you believe that Internet providers should not be allowed to slow down, block or limit certain websites in favor of others, it is very important that you take action now.

The FCC wants to hear the opinions of both experts and end users (all of us who use the Internet) alike and have created a web page for Open Internet Comments. If you don’t want to read the full text of the Open Internet NPRM, here is a list of the FCC’s questions from the Open Internet NPRM.

Also, it is important to write to your Congressional representative to support the Title II reclassification of the broadband Internet. FreePress.net has more information and a copy of a letter to send to your legislator in support of Title II and net neutrality.

If there were more competition, and access to Google Fiber Internet speeds (1GBps), we might not need net neutrality regulations. With an increasing number of mergers of Internet providers, it becomes more important than ever to ensure all Internet websites are open and equally accessible.

mcraghead's picture

While I'm not quite sure if allowing big companies a "fast lane" on the Internet is a bad thing, the issue that bothers me is that my Internet provider seems to limit my access, either through slow connections or by limiting the number of download streams I can have open.

In the article it mentions, "the speed promised by your provider’s plan". Unless I missed something in my agreement with my provider there is no guarantee that you will get the advertised speed referenced in your plan, and what I know about Internet traffic (admittedly networking is not my strong suit) is that you probably never get that stated speed anyway. Worst of all, there is no minimal SLA specified at all. Like I said, unless I missed something, you could get Internet speeds equivalent to analog modem speeds and your provider would still be within the terms or the plan, no matter what level of plan you might have. If anyone knows of a provider that states a minimum rate on their agreements please let me know who those providers are.

Oreo's picture

The No Agenda podcast has had extensive analysis of this issue, and I agree with them that we don't want the government regulating the internet. Title II reclassification would cement the current providers positions and allow them to start selling metered service. Comcast is already doing that in test markets. One person or a couple of cord cutters might not reach the cap, but a family streaming content adds up pretty quickly. How many electricity or gas companies do you have to choose from? How about regular telephone service?

The usage issues are being mixed between last mile users (us) and the peerage users (Netflix and the rest of the internet). Peerage agreements affect how the data flows, and ISPs should have the ability to manage traffic on their networks. If a surgeon is performing a remote surgery, would you want those packets to have priority or be treated the same as Jane's Instagram upload?

The internet wasn't built to stream video, but video streams are saturating the switches and routers. This isn't an issue that can be solved by adding a few more pieces of equipment.

The final points of this article don't make sense. Who decides what content is "legal" under these rules? Also, by delineating "lawful" websites, it would allow blocking of "unlawful" websites, but, again, who decides which ones those are? International law has bans on speech that contradict the First Amendment. This will end badly for the consumer.