What is Net Neutrality and How Will it Affect You?

Posted on Tue, July 17, 2018 in Analytics & Reporting, User Experience, GRAYBOX News, by Jon Love

Net Neutrality is the idea that service providers aren’t able to limit or restrict any content flowing through the internet, cable channels, or cell towers, and that data and traffic should be treated equally. For years the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been working to protect Net Neutrality, but has recently repealed Net Neutrality regulations.

Let’s play a game called “What happens next?”

The end of last year saw the Net Neutrality policies implemented by the FCC in 2015 effectively rolled back, opening the doors to a potentially different host of ways through which we will use the internet. That phrase -- “use the internet” -- is an intentional choice of words, intended to include not just the proverbial internet fast lanes and slow lanes, but more broadly, to encompass the ways in which we market brands, architect technical solutions, start (or shut down) companies, and build social interactions at a distance.

For many reasons, it’s impossible to predict what will happen in the coming years given the nascent options afforded ISPs in this new regulatory ecosystem. Despite what many websites may claim, there are very few exact corollary examples from which to draw. Most European countries are subjected to broad EU-enforced Net Neutrality regulations; most US companies have lived under some degree of regulatory scrutiny-- even before the 2015 FCC regulations-- that made dramatic moves challenging, and thus uncommon; and those countries that have implemented some form of economically (not politically) motivated “limited access plans” have tended to do so from a standpoint of purely mobile data limits, or are an otherwise poor analog from which to draw conclusions.

Rather than speculate on what may happen, let’s instead play our game by simply assuming several changes have already happened to the ways in which ISPs offer access to the internet. This will define our landscape, and from that new landscape we can project impacts that will likely occur as a result of those new boundaries.

Let’s assume ISPs take a consistent, non-colluding approach to how they change their offerings within these constraints:

  • We’ll assume ISPs will generally behave alike. There won’t be any meaningful altruistic outliers.
  • Their decisions are financially motivated, not driven by government influence or to directly influence politics.
  • They act individually for personal (ie: their business) gain, not acting in concert or otherwise running afoul of existing antitrust regulations.
  • Possible outcomes are derived from actions ISPs and similar bodies have taken in the US and abroad in the past or in recent history, and legally acceptable approaches that have been speculated about and do not violate other regulations to which the ISPs must adhere.

Here are three changes we’ll assume ISPs will make in the coming five years:

  • Economy Bundles: These will be defined packages that allow access to only certain websites for a user, restricting users’ access to only a certain portion of the internet, likely for a reduced fee. This is much like what Cable providers offer in TV channel packages today, where basic access is inexpensive but limited, and customers pay for packages that grant them an increasingly broad set of options for content. We’ll assume four common packages:
  • Social Media (some fixed set of social media platforms, such as facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc)
  • Streaming Content (some fixed set of streaming video platforms, such as YouTube, NetFlix, Hulu, etc.)
  • Productivity (Some fixed set of productivity websites, such as Gmail/Google Applications, Office Web Applications, SaaS Accounting and CRM Applications, etc)
  • News (Some fixed set of news websites, like Reuters, CNN, NPR, etc).
  • Full Internet (Access to all of the internet in its current incarnation, the “all you can eat” package)

Much like purchasing your “Basic” cable package, if you are using one of the paid services and attempt to access content that is only available through one of the other paid packages, you would be required to upgrade your package to view that content, or would be otherwise prevented from accessing that other content.

  • Fast Lanes / Slow Lanes: Slicing up bandwidth access into paid tiers, and charging more money for access to tiers that yield higher throughput. Short of adding new capacity to the network, this could also be thought of as throttling access that is unpaid or at lower fees, and granting better access when paying more for the privilege. Let’s leave this intentionally ambiguous, allowing for the possibility of both content creators and content consumers as potential targets for this paid access (ie: “As NetFlix, I have to pay more to stream my content to subscribers in an effective way, and I can choose whether or not to pass those costs onto my subscribers,” as well as, “As an avid fan of The Crown, I have to buy a ‘Premium Streaming Content Plan’ through my ISP to gain access to any streaming video services like NetFlix.”).
  • Zero Rating: While this is technically already legal to some degree, it is a high-likelihood to be greatly expanded and more heavily leveraged given programs already attempted by ISPs in the past several years. Under this mechanism, ISPs may partner with (or selectively choose based on popularity) certain services they decide will not count against data usage, encouraging use of those systems by requiring payment for (and thus discouraging use of) alternative systems. As an example: Accessing the internet through AT&T will mean a user only gets 5MB of data per month, but their Facebook and NetFlix data is free and does not count toward their 5MB. If the user wants to access Twitter or Hulu, they quickly consume their 5MB data limit and need to buy more to access those services. This differs from Economy Bundles in that the user technically always has access to the full internet -- they just have to “pay as they go” at a likely much higher rate for content not included in the zero rating list.

These three areas share a number of attributes in common:

  • First, they are all exceedingly likely to happen. They are all scenarios derivative of actions ISPs in the US have already taken at points over the past decade, or so closely related to pricing strategies those same companies offer in other, similar service lines as to be nearly a given.
  • Second, they within the often repeated justification of “providing consumer choice,” in that they offer alternatives to the “one size fits all” approach for pricing and access to the internet.
  • Finally, they all fit within the repeated ISP argument that the expense of providing access to the internet is exceptionally high, and that adding capacity may not be the only means to increase access while allowing the ISPs a longer period of time during which to recoup profits from infrastructure investment.

Given this framework, these three changes to the ways in which ISPs offer access to the internet seem likely, and provide us a good foundation for postulating impacts they may have on the way we use the internet.

In the following series, I’ll cover the impacts of these changes in several areas of technology that directly impact businesses:

  1. Development Strategies and Techniques
  2. Impacts to Digital Marketing Strategies
  3. General Business and Communication Impacts

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