Net Neutrality: Predicting the Future of the Internet

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Some believe that the end of Net Neutrality means the ‘End of the Internet’ – but what will ISPs really do with all this freedom? Image by Decoded Science.

Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, struck down Net Neutrality once more, by vacating portions of the ‘Open Internet Order’ – the latest version of an attempt to compel Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide exactly the same service to each user.

Some say the end of Net Neutrality is the “End of the Internet” – others say that it’s nothing to worry about. Both predictions are based on either ‘What if the ISPs do X?‘ (Pro Net Neutrality) or ‘The ISPs wouldn’t do that!’ (Against Net Neutrality).

So – what is it that the ISPs could (or wouldn’t) do with the freedom they have in a Net Neutrality-less nation?

Allocate Resources

Net Neutrality dictates that each user who is using their Internet service for lawful purposes should have equal access. In other words, no packet preference for anyone. If you’re playing online video games in your house, and I’m downloading a PDF from the Smithsonian’s website next door, our packets compete on a first-come-first-served basis.

No Packet Preference: Good or Bad for Users?

In a nutshell, here’s one basic reason Net Neutrality Proponents say no-packet-preference is a good thing: Our Internet Provider (assuming we share a provider) can’t interfere with either of our activities. You play your video game, I download my file, and we have equal access to the Internet. That means – if I’m downloading something the ISP doesn’t like (maybe an information packet from a competitor’s website) or accessing online information to which they’d rather I not have access (application for a change in service) they aren’t able to stop those activities.

Here’s the opposing viewpoint: If we’re competing for those packets in a head-to-head match, it could take longer for me to download my PDF – unless it’s a huge PDF and then, sorry, but your video game may freeze. That’s because an ISP’s users are all competing for the same bandwidth, in smaller or larger increments. An ISP may have several backbone connections, but all of their users are competing for the bandwidth that is available from those sources. In some cases, an ISP will set up dedicated lines, in which case you have unlimited access within your allocated amount of bandwidth – but they often share dedicated lines among customers, which means you’re still competing.

If the ISP has the freedom to limit huge transfers of data (particularly during peak periods) then both of our applications may run a little slower, but nothing freezes up. And if either of us uses bandwidth at excessive levels, we’ll be asked to upgrade our service – to pay more for a larger allocation of bandwidth that better fits our usage.

ISPs: Power Corrupts

One of the biggest arguments for Net Neutrality is that the ISPs will, essentially, take over the Internet and ruin it for everyone. As Craig Aaron, journalist for the Daily Beast tells us, “Expect Internet blackouts that extend far beyond the popular content vendors, as smaller websites are caught in the crossfire. Tweets, emails and texts will be mysteriously delayed or dropped. Videos will load slowly, if at all. Websites will work fine one minute and freeze the next.

Is this a likely scenario? During the telecommunication deregulation of the 1980s, many feared that our great American telephone system would no longer be reliable, but now that there’s a phone in every pocket, that’s clearly not an issue. However, who’s to say that Verizon, AT&T and others won’t take advantage of their freedom in the future?

This is the underlying issue: There’s no way to accurately predict the future actions of a variety of different companies, all competing for the same niche. We can, however predict the results of either outcome.

This map shows the availability of broadband Internet Access in the United States. Image courtesy of Broadband.gov.

ISPs Compete For Customers

Outcome one is based on the fact that ISPs benefit from happy customers, just like other companies. There isn’t an excess of competition in every area around the United States, but most regions have at least two options when it comes to Internet service. Unless there’s a vast ISP conspiracy to ruin the Internet, and thereby eliminate their own customer base, these ISPs will likely continue to compete for your business. That means you’ll see different pricing plans, and like it’s always been, the people who can pay for giant bandwidth allocations will pay for it, and the rest of us will make do with what we have.

ISPs Ruin the Internet

Outcome two: The Greedy ISP that doesn’t understand supply, demand, and competition. In the event that all of the current ISPs do band together to throttle the Internet access of the vast majority of users, for the benefit of a small, wealthy minority, that would create a huge market gap. Our nation is, like it or not, dependent on the Internet – and we’re nothing if not innovative. In the event of an ISP takeover, new technologies, and new methods of sharing information – potentially faster, more robust, and all-around better than our current Internet could easily arise to compete with those ISPs.

A World Without The Internet

Meshnet is one example of an Internet alternative; and community mesh networks are on the rise as well – there was a local mesh network at use during the Occupy Wall Street movement, according to Popular Resistance. As innovators carve out the mesh niche, there will inevitably be ways to connect and expand the networks, potentially into a parallel and even more robust global network. Could we be looking at a future without The Internet? It’s possible – but the next question is; would that be a bad thing?

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