Let’s put it bluntly: under the current FCC leadership of Ajit Pai, the free internet as we know it has its head on the chopping block, and Pai is the executioner. I know this sounds grim and hyperbolic, but the situation truly can be considered that severe. For those unaware, or not fully in the know — Pai, a former Verizon lawyer and long known opponent of Net Neutrality (or at least the existing regulations), is now the Chairman of the FCC. Just recently, the FCC has begun working towards dismantling our existing Net Neutrality protections, known as Title II.
We’ll go a bit more in depth below, but to keep it short and sweet: if the FCC scales back regulation, everyone will be at the mercy of the Internet Service Providers. They will have free reign to throttle and slower data, up-charge for access to certain providers or websites, or simply force consumers into non-competitive, overly expensive, data capped internet plans. And this is really just scratching the surface.
We don’t know exactly what will come from removing Chapter II, but we know that scaling back the existing regulations could easily crush the freedom the internet, and its users, currently experience. It may not seem like it, but this could directly impact any size business, although particularly the SMB market, as well as have a huge impact on the UC and VoIP industry overall.
What is Net Neutrality?
Starting at the very beginning, I always like to form a core understanding of the issue at hand. We hear the term “Net Neutrality” thrown around constantly, but I’m sure not everyone is completely aware of what this encompasses. So, for a very basic definition, Net Neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic must be treated equally.
This means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not throttle connections, slow down internet speeds, or prevent users from accessing legal content. No matter the source of the content, the ISP must provide the same consistent speed for all user activities.
Pretty simple, right? So far, this is how the internet has always operated — no matter what website you use, streaming service, email provider, or whatever, every single website you access will always have the same, full internet speed you paid for. That is, at least, in theory.
The idea is that the internet is an exercise in human communication, one not governed by a single legal body and available to all. This allows the easy and free spread of information, communications, and collaboration — hint hint, all important aspects of how a modern business will operate.
So Why Do We Need Net Neutrality?
If you’re not getting the full picture just yet, let me paint it in a little further detail. Right now, and always, the internet is essentially a Wild West. Anyone can go online and access information, or start their own webpage, or service provider, or blog, or Youtube content. The internet is an even playing field, because no matter the size of your company, random users form around the world can access your website, services, information or content without any interruption from the ISP.
Of course, as we all know, service can be spotty or internet connections slow. But this is due to the nature of our connectivity, for example wireless networks are never as stable as wired connections. But, if we were to remove net neutrality, then the playing field would no longer be even.
Some Real World Examples:
1) The Big Guy Bullies The Little Guys
A large cooperation, let’s say Amazon (nothing against Amazon at all, they’re just a big name everyone knows for the example), will have a much stronger pull over the ISP than say a random Silicon Valley start up.
Since Amazon is so massive, they would be able to enter an agreement, partnership, contract, whatever you want to call it, with an ISP. This agreement would allow users to access Amazon at their regular paid-for speeds. However, that small start up from SV — they do not have the same pull or fiscal force that Amazon does and therefore cannot arrange a similar deal. Now, all users trying to access the startup’s web page may have very slow connections, or an inability to access the page at all.
2) Prioritized Access For More $$
Or, in a similar scenario, an ISP could simply sell different internet packages, similar to cable TV packages. If your business is always using video conferencing, well, now you might have to purchase a very specific “Video Conferencing Internet Package” for $49.99 more than a regular package. This package would allow all your videos to come in crystal clear and without interruption. If you don’t subscribe to a video specific package, then the ISP will throttle data, ruining the experience, and force the consumer to buy a more expensive package for that specific use. While your business might not have to pay for a video conferencing solution, it might have to end up paying for specific service to support it
So that’s the basic concept, and generally shared fear. Remove the current existing regulations, and we now have a free market that will allow ISPs to do whatever they please. And, as we have already seen, they generally are not on the side of the consumer. I mean, Comcast is routinely voted the worst company in the entire country. Now you might say, “So what? I just won’t use Comcast.” Well, for many Americans, Comcast is the only option. An entire solution has been launched to help consumers fight unfair billing from Comcast. And this is when they were already being regulated to at least some degree!
To put it bluntly: Net Neutrality as a whole is necessary for the internet to operate as it always has: an open and accessible flow of information.
But this doesn’t tell the whole story, so let’s dig a bit deeper.
But What’s This “Title II” Thing?
I’ve reused the phrase a few times already, and want to help those understand a bit further just what this all means. Well, back in the Communications Act of 1934, the FCC put in place the different “Title” definitions to help organize, and regulate interstate and foreign communications. Since this was ’34, the main goal of regulation was radio or wire, but also included “for other purposes.” This now means the internet.
So in 2015, many urged that the FCC classify Internet Service Providers under the Title II designation of “Common Carriers” from the Communication Act of 1934, which states:
“It shall be unlawful for any common carrier to make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services for or in connection with like communication service, directly or indirectly, by any means or device, or to make or give any undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any particular person, class of persons, or locality, or to subject any particular person, class of persons, or locality to any undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage. “
Now, there is far more outlined in the entire section of the act beyond just this definition. But, this essentially states that if a provider of a service is labeled as a Title II Common Carrier, they are legally barred from any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in their service. This brings us directly back to my previous examples, say an ISP throttling access to specific websites just because they didn’t pay enough, or aren’t as large as Amazon. Or, specifically throttling the TYPE of connection, despite its legality — my Video Conferencing example.
A Title II classification allows the FCC to protect consumers from these unfair practices. As the former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler put it back in 2015:
“This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech,” he said. “They both stand for the same concept: openness, expression and an absence of gatekeepers.”
Where Are We Now
Well, in 2015 the FCC heard many cries, and did in fact reclassify ISPs as Title II Common Carriers. This put in the current consumer protections that Pai and his FCC are now effectively dismantling. Of course, the rhetoric is a positive one. The idea being touted is that this classification brought down an iron gate in front of providers, preventing them from offering the services consumers truly want and need, and that the regulation is far too heavy handed.
This sounds like a reasonable statement, I’m sure many are in favor of deregulation for a free market. Except, as it turns out, we discovered even back in 2015 that ISP Executives flat out lied about Net Nuetrality hurting network investments. Don’t just take it from me, Karl Bode with TechDirt put together a piece outlining this exact issue. Bode wrote:
“While their lobbyists and lawyers were busy trying to pretend that net neutrality was the equivalent of investment napalm, executives from Frontier, Cablevision, Sprint, Sonic and even neutrality public enemy number one, Verizon, have been quietly acknowledging the rules won’t do anything of the sort … As Charter looks to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in the industry’s latest mega deal, company CEO Tom Rutledge last week joined the chorus of broadband execs admitting on the record they’ve been participating in a giant, repetitive bluff:
‘New U.S. net neutrality regulations have not affected how Charter Communications Inc invests in building its telecoms networks, Chief Executive Tom Rutledge told Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler this week…Rutledge, however, told Wheeler that “the commission’s decision to reclassify broadband Internet access under Title II has not altered Charter’s approach of investing significantly in its network to deliver cutting edge services,” according to the disclosure of the June 2 meeting.’
Yes, Charter’s looking to have a deal approved, but you can obviously see the pattern here. As we’ve noted all along, there’s one reason and one reason alone that broadband ISPs oppose net neutrality rules: it will cost them billions of dollars by limiting the “creative” ways in which they can abuse the lack of last-mile broadband competition.”
So, in essence, a broadband company was only harmed if that ISP was looking to “screw over consumers,” as Mike Masnick from TechDirt more recently put it. Overall, “the open internet rules just provided clear ‘rules of the road’ for ISPs to treat internet data fairly and to not screw over end users. ”
But despite this, Pai seems convinced that the answer to saving these “failing company’s pouring money into useless investments,” we need to allow them the freedom to discriminate services based on any factor they see fit. Just last week, Pai began his approach to dismantling the previous FCC ruling, and the regulations put in place. What will follow — now that’s the uncertain part. But based on everything we already took a look at, I think it’s safe to say that it will not be a pro-consumer move.
We’re hearing shady quotes from Pai himself, like that this change will “restore internet freedom for all Americans,” but quite frankly, this is just nice sounding rhetoric. The internet currently is free, and don’t just take my word for it.
This Hurts The Little Guys
In favoring the large ISPs, and providing them with the freedom to reign however they choose, Pai and the FCC are simply disregarding the massive number of businesses that do succeed simply because the internet is free and open. In fact, over 800 startups from all 50 states have come together to form “Startups for Net Neutrality.” They sent a letter directly to Pai, urging that his FCC reconsider their decisions. The letter states:
“Without net neutrality, the incumbents who provide access to the Internet would be able to pick winners or losers in the market. They could impede traffic from our services in order to favor their own services or established competitors. Or they could impose new tolls on us, inhibiting consumer choice. Those actions directly impede an entrepreneur’s ability to “start a business, immediately reach a worldwide customer base, and disrupt an entire industry.” Our companies should be able to compete with incumbents on the quality of our products and services, not our capacity to pay tolls to Internet access providers.”
The level playing field that the internet has provided since its very inception is what has allowed numerous businesses to reach the position they are at today. Facebook never would have taken off if MySpace was lobbying an ISP to throttle traffic to their competitor.
Startups for Net Neutrality puts it very simply:
“The success of America’s startup ecosystem depends on an open internet with enforceable net neutrality rules, ensuring that small companies can compete on a level playing field without the threat that their services will be discriminated against by big cable and wireless companies.”
So if you run a small or midsize business, then be warned that losing Net Neutrality will have a very drastic negative impact on the potential to reach a wide audience, and effectively grow. If you aren’t totally convinced that losing Net Neutrality will have a big impact on your daily life, or business, take a look at this great list put together by The Verge, highlighting just a sample of what ISPs have already been up to in the past 10 years:
- Deliberately throttled internet traffic
- Lied about throttling internet traffic
- Squeezed customers with arbitrary data caps
- Misled consumers about the meaning of “unlimited” internet
- Gave privileged treatment to vertically integrated companies they own
- Strong-armed cities to prevent them from giving their residents high-speed internet
- Fought against being held accountable as public utilities, while profiting from public utility regulations
- Fought and killed privacy rules that protected customer web browsing data
- Held customers hostage to make Netflix pay up
- Lied about net neutrality rules hurting network investments
- Avoided real competition at all costs
What About VoIP and UC?
I’ve been mostly broad so far, but that’s simply because the loss of Net Neutrality will impact everyone in every industry, not just one specific subset. It’s a very broad issue that needs to be considered by everyone because almost all of us use — and flat out rely upon — the internet for our daily lives. But I do want to bring this back to our main focus: The VoIP and UC industry. I recently took a look at how the FCC regulates VoIP companies and while they do not necessarily rule with an iron fist, the fallout everyone will endure from the loss of Net Neutrality could be very drastic.
Well, the main fear is that without the current Title II restrictions, ISPs will have the freedom to charge how they want, for whatever they want. This means a provider can guarantee a higher speed, and lag free connection, for higher cost. Like I said with the Video Conferencing solution — if your business wants to be able to video chat, then you need to buy a specific plan for this.
But more than just forcing the consumer into packages, ISPs could charge VoIP and UC Providers more money to keep their traffic interruption free. This might not be an issue for the biggest names in the industry, but when you are a start up or local provider, this could mean disaster for your business. But even with the largest providers, they will simply have to pass their cost on to the end-user, raising the price of UC services.
In fact, some of the popular Business VoIP providers will simply piggy-back off existing ISPs to deliver their data, meanwhile AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon are both Internet Service Providers and VoIP providers. So they could simply throttle Nextiva and Jive’s traffic, while favoring their own. At the end of the day Net Neutrality means better service and lower costs for the end user, which means happier, and hopefully more, clients for the providers.
Maybe The Sky Isn’t Falling
Now, my speculations could very well be wrong. Pai did say the FCC wants to put in place a light-touch regulation, and simply dislikes the heavy-handed approach from 2015. Now, the approach wasn’t very heavy-handed to begin with, but as a regulating hating Republican it might seem that way. So for argument’s sake, I’ll maybe concede on that.
Its very possible that Pai has a plan to introduce new regulations that will still protect consumers, but not impede on ISP investing. Now, Title II classification mostly did that, as we saw, but clearly the ISPs aren’t happy. Its also very possible that the FTC, the Federal Trade Commission, will be called into regulate ISPs — some are saying this fits more in line with the agencies’ responsibilities.
Should the ISPs be the ones influencing the laws, and regulation? I don’t think so — but this isn’t a political blog, and we’re all entitled to our own thoughts. But when the internet is classified as a basic human right, it begins to make sense why regulation is necessary. At this point, you can’t run a business or even find employment without access to the internet.
Make Your Voice Heard
While the future does look grim, all hope isn’t lost just yet. Thankfully, as I discovered in my recent post surrounding FCC and VoIP regulation, the FCC makes it fairly simple to have your voice heard. Now, whether or not that will have an impact is hard to tell.
However, it can be quite difficult to ignore if a large enough group speaks up. In fact, this is what happened in 2015 when the FCC ruled ISPs as Title II. Following millions of comments from 2014, the FCC went to adopt the Open Internet Order. And after the FCC ruled ISPs as Title II they also opened up a complaint section specifically for Net Neutrality violations.
The fight will be an uphill battle, unfortunately. As Engadget pointed out, “FCC proceedings are not 100% up to a public vote.” But Engadget also pointed out that Pai just really doesn’t care what you have to say:
“I must smile when I hear proponents try to defend net neutrality’s enactment,” he said. They inevitably refer to the nearly 4 million comments the commission received on the topic,” said Pai. “Lost, somehow, is the simple truth that more than 1.6 million, or almost 40 percent, of those comments opposed the imposition of the rules. More important, commission outcomes are not and cannot be decided by poll numbers or letter counts.”
Or, as Pai lays out plainly, the comments the FCC receives “are not equivalent to a public survey opinion, or poll.” And he quite bluntly explains the comments alone won’t tilt him one way or the other:
“…what matters is the quality of the argumentation presented. the facts that are entered into the record…it’s not a counting procedure where we decide which side has placed more comments onto the record and that side wins.”
So it seems like the current FCC is going to make this really, really difficult for us. But that doesn’t mean we should give up. As I said, it can be difficult to ignore a massive influx of opinion, and it absolutely is a start. Contact the FCC and let them know we need a free and open internet, as it always has been.
Contact the FCC by phone:
- press 1, then 4, then 2, then 0
- Explain you wish to file comments concerning the FCC Chairman’s plan to end net neutrality.
Or on the web:
- Under Proceedings, enter 14-28 and 17-108