Two years after the Federal Communications Commission took comprehensive and far-reaching steps towards making net-neutrality the law of the land, the internet in the United States is once again at a crossroads. New fiber-optic and wireless technology are poised to revolutionize broadband, working at speeds up to 100 times faster than current networks and expanding internet access to those that don’t have it. But the requirements that broadband remain unbiased are under threat from a new administration and a Congress hostile to Internet regulation.
The internet in the U.S. can go one of two ways: government can embrace new high-speed broadband, but ensure that it is implemented in a way that will expand internet access and keep net-neutrality in place, or, in the name of cutting regulation, they can let broadband providers only provide service where it is convenient and abandon net-neutral principles, shifting control of internet content to the rich and powerful, and creating online inequality.
Net-neutrality is the idea that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must provide all content to their users at the same level of broadband strength and speed, rather than artificially speed up or slow down specific content to favor one web company over another. Because these ISPs, such as Comcast, AT&T and RCN, often also produce Internet content, many fear that if not properly regulated they will use their control over broadband to favor themselves, speeding up access to their content and slowing down access to everyone else’s. Also, without net-neutrality, internet giants such as Facebook and Amazon could pay ISPs to favor the speed of their content over those that could not pay, creating further inequality in broadband access.
Net-neutrality is important because it protects small businesses and startups from a form of discrimination that would make it incredibly difficult for them to advertise and grow. Getting rid of it would give total control of internet content to the giants that could afford to pay for better broadband access. It would turn what is currently a hotbed for democracy and innovation into yet another tool for the wealthy and powerful to hold onto power and exert control over the masses.
A neutral internet spurs innovation. If internet giants were able to use their control over broadband to artificially beat out competition, they would not be forced to innovate to keep up with new ideas and start-ups. Though companies like Google and Amazon tend to be on the forefront of innovation anyways, if they didn’t have to innovate to protect their bottom-line, they could easily get complacent.
It is also worth mentioning that many internet giants are pro-neutrality. On Sept. 10, 2014, thousands of websites slowed themselves down in an online protest of a federal court’s ruling against the FCC’s right to ensure a neutral internet, including Netflix, Tumblr, and Reddit. Though a company like Netflix could pay for access to high-speed broadband and would actually stand to gain from a rollback of net-neutrality regulations, they opposed it on ethical grounds.
If broadband can remain well regulated and neutral, the future of internet service is bright. Google Fiber, a new arm of Alphabet, has begun piloting their fiber-optic broadband service, which can provide Internet service at about 100 times the current average connection speed. It is up and running in five cities, and has been remarkably successful right out of the gate.
Google Fiber appears to be motivated by, in addition to obvious goals of profitability, its executives’ hatred of today’s ISPs. They believe that ISPs stifle competition and innovation, and they believe that they can change that; they are probably right. According to a recent FCC report, only one in three Americans can choose between multiple broadband providers. Google Fiber increases competition, leading to innovation.
However, Fiber is not without issue, and municipal governments have to monitor it closely to make sure it’s implemented fairly. In Kansas City, Kan. the first city to get Fiber, the company initially provided far more service on the city’s more affluent, whiter side—a practice known as “digital redlining.” They have since taken steps to deal with the problem and provide more service to poor, black residents of Kansas City, but it is up to governments in the future to carefully monitor this type of behavior. Wireless technology, also a focus of Google Fiber, has the potential to bring internet access to rural areas and other places where it was previously unavailable. Currently, one in ten Americans doesn’t have access to the Internet—a problem that wireless technology would definitely solve.
All of this technology is very exciting, but increasing internet speed and accessibility will only matter if access to broadband channels remains equitable and unbiased. If the U.S. government decides to protect net-neutrality laws, the internet will be an increasingly powerful tool in spurring innovation and leveling the playing field for smaller companies in the foreseeable future. If not, massive potential will be squandered, and a system that already favors wealthy corporations will be reinforced.