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Could Net Neutrality Ruin the Internet?

Regulation on net neutrality looks certain now that Republicans in the Senate have withdrawn legislation that would have preempted the rules. Tomorrow (Feb. 26), the Federal Communications Commission will likely approve, by a 3-2 vote, a policy that regulates Internet service providers (ISPs) and wireless carriers as public utilities under a legal provision called Title II.

So, is this a good thing?

Some critics, including two of the five FCC commissioners, say the 332 pages of net neutrality regulations that the FCC will vote on this week could hamper the development of new technologies and prevent ISPs and wireless companies from offering special deals and incentives. Those warnings might seem like knee-jerk reactions to perceived government meddling. But let's hear them out.

MORE: What Is Net Neutrality? An FAQ

Argument No. 1: You shouldn't regulate data packets.

Treating all Internet traffic equally would actually make it harder to keep the data flowing smoothly, handicap cloud computing services like voice recognition and even muck up phone calls, said Doug Brake, a telecom analyst with the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. That's because the Internet isn't just for downloading and streaming; it's increasingly used for real-time interactions among computers, servers, cellphones and other connected gadgets — where every millisecond really does matter. For these types of applications, prioritizing some packets over others could make a difference. 

"Carriers are not looking to build a tollbooth," Brake said, referring to situations when ISPs require content providers to pay more for access to the network. "They are looking for ways to build a special-purpose network."

These special purposes, he said, include voice and video calls. "Take an HD Skype call," Brake said. "We can make that work — kind of — but you still get stuttering or artifacts ." If the video data packets get priority in the data queue over a snippet of email, the call would run a lot better, and the email would still get through in time. But an explicit ban on prioritization would make that difficult or impossible, Brake fears.

Prioritizing data will be important for a new generation of wireless service — voice over LTE, or VOLTE, he said. Here, bits of conversations are mixed into the same wash of digits that carries your emails, Facebook messages, Spotify streams and selfie posts, none of which are as sensitive to delays as a phone call (or video call) is. And latency — the delay for a packet to get where it's going — is worse with bandwidth-strapped wireless networks, Brake said. "Prioritization is the only way to do voice over data," he noted.

Latency could also kneecap new services that require split-millisecond connections to massive computers far away. Voice-recognition apps don't live on your phone or TV. Rather, they live on servers that record your voice, figure out what it really means and tell the app back on your device how to respond — all in an instant.

MORE: Samsung Denies Smart TV Snooping

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization solidly on the side of net neutrality regulation, is skeptical of these arguments for prioritization. Jeremy Gillula, the EFF's staff technologist, said that prioritization doesn't work once data leaves the ISP and goes on to the larger Internet.

"Most transit providers and interconnections today completely ignore packet prioritization codes," Gillula said. He added that data encryption, which is becoming increasingly common, would obscure any labels that, say, distinguish a voice packet from a piece of a Web page.

Gillula also argued that even well-intentioned prioritization could be unfair to users. "If I use my connection primarily for VoIP, but my neighbor uses hers primarily for gaming [and we have the same ISP], why should one person's traffic be prioritized over another based on the type of traffic?" he asked.

Argument No. 2: Regulations quash deals for consumers.

Half off. Two for one. Shopping is full of special offers. But regulating wireless providers and ISPs as utilities would require uniform pricing and prohibit the offering of deals, said Ajit Pai, one of the two FCC commissioners who opposes regulation. He is also one of the few people allowed to see the upcoming regulations.

Pai, a former Verizon attorney, warned in a statement that the upcoming FCC regulations — which he labels "The President's Plan" — would prohibit anything short of an all-you-can-eat data plan. People couldn't save money by being charged for only how much they use, he said. Rather, with everyone paying the same amount, data-thrifty people would subsidize the bandwidth hogs, he claimed. 

MORE: Decoded: Net Neutrality and the 'New' Broadband

The upcoming FCC regulations also mean no more freebies, he warned. "The president’s plan goes out of its way to say that sponsored-data plans and zero-rating programs, like T-Mobile’s Music Freedom offering, may violate the new standard for Internet conduct," Pai's statement said.

But maybe those free-access deals aren't worth it if they make it hard to find new content. "Imagine you watch all the videos you want on your phone on YouTube without using any of your data," said Evan Greer, of Fight for the Future, a group that's been organizing campaigns in favor of net neutrality regulation. "Would you then go try out a new, innovative YouTube-like service, knowing that it will cost you precious data?"

Bottom Line: Pessimism Sometimes Helps

Critics of net neutrality regulation point to the many ways it can go wrong, from unintended consequences to abuse. Yet they are optimistic that ISPs, if left alone, will do the right thing to ensure open Internet access. Supporters of regulation have the opposite sentiments. Regulations are almost certainly coming, and it will take both sides to fight against abuses of those regulations in order for the Internet to keep working.

Senior editor Sean Captain likes his Internet the way he likes his convenience stores: always open. Follow him @seancaptain. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

  • CarlosVe
    Everyone has the Right to Life, the Right to Liberty and the Right to Own Oneself and One's property, under God and noone should be allowed to violate your rights unless you try to violate theirs.

    Regulations that violate your freedom, violate anyone's property rights (including yours and companies rights), instead of protecting them ARE SLAVERY. Government is out of control trying to ENSLAVE people and forcing their will instead of protecting our rights.

    I thought the Gov. was supposed to be representative of the people, subject to natural rights? The Gov. FCC's will is in flagrant violation of such:

    "lawmakers are pursuing to block regulations they argue will curb innovation and investment in the fast-growing Internet sector, and that were enacted against the will of a majority of Congress and in the face of a court order that ruled against the FCC's authority over broadband providers." http://www.datamation.com

    http://www.lp.org/blogs/michelle/fcc-should-remain-neutral-on-net-neutrality
    Libertarian Party against Net Neutrality

    Ron Paul and Rand Paul against Net Neutrality
    http://www.buzzfeed.com/rosiegray/the-pauls-new-crusade-internet-freedom#.pjrZV7qw

    Lew Rockwell against Net Neutrality
    http://www.lewrockwell.com/2014/01/robert-wenzel/net-neutrality/
    Reply
  • HEXiT
    lol... seriouslyyy @above.. the current situation of 6 monoplies refusing to enterinto competition with each other due to lack of regulation is why most of america is still in the stone age with there 4meg internet.

    even though these companies have had billions of your hard earned tax dollars on the grounds they needed it to improve connectivity. very little of that money has been used in that way. instead it has been used to lobby government and buy up any1 who might become a competitive threat.

    currently the web in america is a monopoly with half a dozen companies have set up there walled gardens and if your inside your there customer... try to go outside and there so called competition will refuse your business. this isnt capitalism its out right greed.
    Reply
  • chesteracorgi
    The proposed regulations are secret to the FCC and a few insiders (how the h**l did Google get details of the proposals to pose objections to them if they are secret?), and they address a problem that doesn't exist. HEXit, the problem with the 4MB internet isnt the cables or the phones, it is the localg overnment which have granted them monopolies in their jurisdictions. If your local town/city/county cut a deal with Comcast to lay cable they gave them exclusive rights, thus creating a governement confrred monopoly for Comcast (or Time Warner or Verizon, etc.). There is no expectation that the FCC will open up competition for the line owners.

    If the government wantsto regulate the internet it should pass legislation, not take it by administrative fiat. The FCC was created in the 1930's and has no business expanding its authority to the internet. The outright greed is that of the government for aggrandizing its power to tax and control the internet and (as it did with the phne company) provide billions in subsidies to the crony crapitalists, Yes, Verizon, AT&T and the other phones received billions to provide access, and diverted it to lobbying to keep their sinecures. But if the FCC passes new regulations and taxes, expect the internet to be more expensive and exclusive. After all the government has done such a good job with Solyndra.
    Reply
  • youmustbejoking
    "Carriers are not looking to build a tollbooth," Brake said, referring to situations when ISPs require content providers to pay more for access to the network. "They are looking for ways to fleece the customer when building a special-purpose network."
    There: Fixed it for you.
    He is using the same arguments Rockefeller used when the government broke his monopoly.
    Sean Captain then goes on to quote a former Verizon lawyer at great length.
    This isn't a comment piece...it's a blatant propaganda piece.
    Reply
  • ldun
    so paying for prioritizing packets will help start-ups how exactly? Allowing certain packets/data streams to have priority sounds like a good idea... until you realize that the decider has only one interest in mind, making as much money as possible. Why give free prioirty to netflix or a new competing service when the internet/cable/content provider has their own?

    Had the ISP been reasonable and looking out for their customers and "the little guys" from the get go, the gov/FCC wouldn't need to go in and try and "fix" the situation with some regulations.

    If you look at the critics of net neutrality, the large portion is made up of former/current/hopefully future employees of ISP or those that recieve massive donations and lobbying to get the ISP exactly what they want. What ISPs want is to run the show, milk customers out of all their money, and not have to compete with anyone.
    Reply
  • seancaptain
    Hey folks:

    CarlosVe - We outlawed slavery a long time ago, so I'm not worried about that one.

    chesteracorgi - Congress expressly expanded the FCC's authority to the Internet under the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Check our FAQ http://www.tomsguide.com/us/net-neutrality-faq,news-18687.html

    youmustbejoking - I quoted both sides of the debate. Also, that Verizon lawyer is an FCC commissioner.

    As for opening up competition, that was a theme in the first half of the FCC meeting today when the FCC voted to allow city-owned broadband networks to expand.

    Thanks all.

    Reply
  • Danny Wheeler
    Good to know someone is keeping a balanced (IMHO) view of this. And in your bottom line, you're right--it'll take BOTH sides to fight the unintended consequences and abuse.
    Reply
  • HEXiT
    15376809 said:
    The proposed regulations are secret to the FCC and a few insiders (how the h**l did Google get details of the proposals to pose objections to them if they are secret?), and they address a problem that doesn't exist. HEXit, the problem with the 4MB internet isnt the cables or the phones, it is the localg overnment which have granted them monopolies in their jurisdictions. If your local town/city/county cut a deal with Comcast to lay cable they gave them exclusive rights, thus creating a governement confrred monopoly for Comcast (or Time Warner or Verizon, etc.). There is no expectation that the FCC will open up competition for the line owners.

    If the government wantsto regulate the internet it should pass legislation, not take it by administrative fiat. The FCC was created in the 1930's and has no business expanding its authority to the internet. The outright greed is that of the government for aggrandizing its power to tax and control the internet and (as it did with the phne company) provide billions in subsidies to the crony crapitalists, Yes, Verizon, AT&T and the other phones received billions to provide access, and diverted it to lobbying to keep their sinecures. But if the FCC passes new regulations and taxes, expect the internet to be more expensive and exclusive. After all the government has done such a good job with Solyndra.

    like i said they bought laws in government made agreements with local councils to exclusive rights in exchange for upgraded facilities. which the isp's subsequently broke time and time again. all the while taking billions of tax dollars from your pockets at the federal and state level and over charging for for upgrades you were never going to see.
    instead they spent there billions in profits buying up lesser competition to the point the u,s went from 30 isp's down to 6. with zero competition between them. basically there greed and rampant capitalism had ground them into a halt. they cant expand unless there willing to risk there billions on taking on another company worth billions also. if it became a hostile take over millions of peoples jobs could be at risk. as a result they have decided to divvy up the country into there own little kingdoms which they are litrally plundering for profits.

    this is what i imagine in a day at comcast...

    comcast, wow netflix is taking up a lot of bandwidth to the point we need to open more ports on our routers.
    oh! we will have to buy more bandwidth from our providers.
    should we get some?
    nah, if we do, it will compete with our advertising. hey i know we can sell that extra bandwidth as a fast lane on the internet... gladdis, quick get in touch with the fcc...

    gladdis... hello, tom wheeler plz...

    comcast.. tell any 1 who asks, we are not throttling netflix...

    end user... why is my netflix stuttering...

    comcast... not our fault, talk to netflix.

    comcast... hey netflix, your customers are complaining they cant get a smooth service...
    give us some money and we will sort you out... if you dont we wont...

    end user ... my netflix is slow...
    netflix ... im sorry we are going to have to charge you a bit more, so we can pay off comcast to let you have the bandwidth you already payed for... they even had the cheek to put up prices last month...

    end user... what? they are literally charging me twice. but putting netflix in as the middle man...
    well we will see about that....

    end user... Dorris, get on the phone to the fcc, get on the internet while your at it...

    Dorris... hello, fcc, tom wheeler plz.

    comcast... hey, tom wheeler... if you take any notice of dorris we will sue the fcc in court...

    tom wheeler... make may day comcast.

    seriously mate the big 6 have been acting in such a way, its detrimental to the idea of capitalism itself.
    Reply