Staff Columnist

Stay focused to preserve net neutrality

Chairman Ajit Pai speaks ahead of the vote on the repeal of net neutrality rules at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, U.S., December 14, 2017.  (Aaron P. Berstein/Reuters)
Chairman Ajit Pai speaks ahead of the vote on the repeal of net neutrality rules at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, U.S., December 14, 2017. (Aaron P. Berstein/Reuters)

If you like your cable bill, you’re going to love a future without net neutrality.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget approved an earlier party-line vote by the Federal Communications Commission to end 2015 rules regarding net neutrality. Before this change, it didn’t matter if an internet provider held a financial interest in one website over another. So long as the content was legal, there were no internet fast lanes.

So far, and largely because of ongoing congressional, state and court battles, internet service providers are playing nice with their new freedom to block, throttle and charge new fees for access. But the longer net neutrality is repealed, the more emboldened the companies will become.

And, incrementally, consumers already are seeing some changes in the form of “zero-rating” plans. These plans exclude data usage from specific services owned by or in partnership with the internet provider. On a case-by-case basis, the FCC had allowed some of these plans to emerge under previous open internet rules. That oversight now has been removed.

The ramifications are twofold. First, there is the possibility of a chilling effect, which is why so many popular groups such as Airbnb, Etsy and Shutterstock petitioned for open internet rules to remain. Simply put, any company that cannot afford “tolls” imposed by internet service providers will be at a disadvantage.

Local television viewers are familiar with this concept because they’ve seen it play out when local stations are removed from cable lineups because of payment disagreements. How these disagreements are resolved when the smaller party doesn’t have the mouthpiece of a local television station remains to be seen.

The second is any initial access provider savings experienced by consumers likely is to be replaced by increased costs as businesses pass along the these new “tolls.”

It remains anyone’s guess how nonprofits will fare under these new rules. It could very well be that nonprofits favored by an ISP could continue to be granted high-speed access to consumers. Those that fall out of favor could be throttled or, at worst, blocked completely.

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Finally, under these new pay-to-play internet rules, true competition evaporates because consumers will be largely unaware of what they are missing.

This isn’t a future that will manifest tomorrow, but it is the future internet service providers were building before the government stepped in and forced the issue of net neutrality. Without those consumer safeguards, this is the future the ISPs will once again move toward.

Eventually, consumers will be handed an internet bill that looks much more like a cable bill — which has long been the most hated by consumers. The internet becomes piecemeal with only the most affluent afforded unfettered access.

While voters already have heavy lifting to do before the midterm elections, they also must keep the issue of net neutrality before lawmakers. Consumers who pay for internet access must remain able to use that access to visit any website they want, and internet service providers need to know that consumers are still paying attention.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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