2018 — the End of Net Neutrality? What Happens Next?

Mary Ann Aschenbrenner, President of Waterlink Web

Mary Ann Aschenbrenner is a WordPress website designer working in Portland, Oregon.

The concept of net neutrality is a hallmark of the American internet experience. It encourages internet providers to treat all content equally and enables the robust growth of social media channels, video streaming, and the accompanying rise and fall of tech startups. Startups compete on an equal footing because the internet providers don’t suppress content from one company or favor content from another.

Net neutrality can be compared to an open highway. The internet providers, like Comcast, build the road that the content providers — Google, Netflix, Facebook and others — drive on.

In 2015 the concept of net neutrality was made into law with the Open Internet Order enacted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). It allowed the federal government to regulate high-speed internet delivery as if it were a utility, like phone service, and guaranteed net neutrality.

The decision was controversial. Many people cheered; the internet providers did not.

Why We Need to Be Aware and Informed

I build websites for businesses and nonprofit organizations always with the end in mind of creating a website that ranks well in search results and comes up fast. When I learned in 2017 that the FCC was revisiting the issue of net neutrality I decided to do my research to uncover the pros and cons and try to decide what may lie ahead for myself as well as my clients.

What follows are some predictions based on my research. I’m not picking a side, and I believe there is still much we don’t know about how this will play out.

Prediction:

In 2018 we will see access to the internet begin to change … slowly.

In December of 2017 the current FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, led the repeal of the 2015 order. He argues that regulations are not needed and that they act as a disincentive to keep internet providers from upgrading or expanding their networks to low-income urban and rural areas.

This decision is also controversial. Internet providers, like Comcast, are cheering the repeal of net neutrality. Netflix, Facebook, and many others, are not.

Expect changes roll out slowly because internet providers are promising consumers that their online experience will remain the same.

This is how it looks in countries that do not enforce net neutrality.

In countries where net neutrality is not regulated consumers choose between internet packages that include more charges for Facebook or streaming services. In the screenshot below, from the website of Portuguese internet provider Vodafone, you can see that consumers are being given a choice of internet packages. If you want Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, that will cost more. Music streaming services are also extra.

Vodafone Portugal screenshot

In countries that do not enforce net neutrality rules consumers pay extra to use Facebook and streaming services.

 

My prediction is that we will begin to see that in America as well. The internet providers are here to make money and they built the highway. Netflix, Facebook, and other content providers with services that compete will, eventually, need to pay to drive a fast car on that road. This is also called paid prioritization.

Because of consumer opinion, that change will be slow to arrive. It may show up in internet bundles where the consumer pays directly for those services.

Will it affect my clients, small businesses and nonprofit organizations? Not likely, in my opinion. The internet providers will not bite the hands that feed them or demand paid prioritization by slowing down the content providing search engines themselves, Google, Bing or Firefox, for example, that bring up the websites I build.

Prediction:

Rural areas without internet will get internet service.

Ajit Pai testifying on net neutrality before a Senate subcommittee in 2016.

Ajit Pai testifying before a Senate subcommittee in 2016.

In a PBS News Hour interview with Ajit Pai, he said that since the Open Internet Order in 2015, investment among the top 12 internet providers is down by 5.6% or several billion dollars. Smaller providers, those with 1,000 or fewer customers, claim the regulations have prevented them from getting the financing necessary to build out their networks.

It should follow that with net neutrality regulations lifted, rural areas will begin to see a build out of internet services. Rural areas are particularly hurt by a lack of internet service as marketing products and, in many respects, running a business have become internet based activities.

This will be a positive for small businesses, especially those in rural places that are now underserved. They may choose to build and manage websites to market what they grow or raise directly to the consumer and not sell at lower prices to middle men.

Prediction:

Paid prioritization will allow more low-income families to afford internet service.

According to Michael Katz, formerly chief economist at the FCC and now an economics professor at Berkeley, the most basic packages will likely become more affordable as some of the money that internet providers receive from content companies will be passed on to consumers. Katz believes that the low-cost internet option will entice more households to sign up, creating a win for both internet providers and content makers.

If these predictions bear fruit, that could allow the 13% of Americans without access or who cannot afford basic internet to become subscribers. This includes children living in poverty whose families cannot afford internet service in their homes.

Prediction:

Startups will have a harder time gaining traction

Over the past two decades startups have been very important to the American economy. Because all content was being treated equally, startups operated on a relatively equal footing with established companies. That could begin to change in 2018 if the costs associated with obtaining fast internet make it more difficult for startups, particularly for those providing content streaming services that compete with services provided by the internet providers themselves.

More to Consider

Lawsuit to be filed against the FCC over net neutrality.

Just when you thought this was settled a Silicone Valley lobbying group representing Facebook, Google, Netflix and dozens of other tech firms has announced it will join a legal attack against the FCC’s decision to deregulate the broadband industry.

Net neutrality is far from settled and brings to mind a quote from baseball great, Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”

What I am confident of is that building websites that rank well in search results and come up fast will be just as important in 2018 as it was in 2017.

I will close with this quote from Ajit Pai where he explains the case for ending government rules requiring net neutrality,

I have met with folks from Kalamazoo, Michigan, down to Carthage, Mississippi, from Barrow, Alaska, to Diller, Nebraska, what they tell me is that the concern is not that their Internet service provider is blocking lawful traffic or doing something like that. It’s that they want more competition. They want better, faster and cheaper Internet.

Will deregulating net neutrality rules offer better, faster, and cheaper internet? It remains to be determined.

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