Wheeler’s New Net Neutrality Rules Change Course

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Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler has repeatedly said that he wants to enforce net neutrality, but the new set of rules that he is reportedly going to unveil sometime today would likely entrench a tiered internet where companies have to pay for decent access.

Wheeler says new policy is still ‘net neutrality’

“There is no ‘turnaround in policy,’ ” Wheeler said in a statement, reports Edward Wyatt at the New York Times. “The same rules will apply to all Internet content. As with the original open Internet rules, and consistent with the court’s decision, behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted.”

But despite his protests, and his decision to continue calling his policy net neutrality, it isn’t what open internet activists mean when they use the term. Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers should treat all traffic equally, transmitting data packets as they come in. Technically, they don’t have to do it this way. Comcast Corporation (NASDAQ:CMCSA) (NASDAQ:CMCSK) and other cable providers are capable of deciding that they don’t want to transmit data from a certain company and making it unreachable. Since internet access in the US is controlled by a handful of companies, net neutrality advocates say that giving them so much control over the content that we can access would stifle innovation.

Tiered service can’t be ‘neutral’

Wheeler’s new policy would prevent service providers from outright blocking certain types of data, but it would allow side deals between ISPs and content providers to guarantee fast, reliable service. The implication being that without a deal, a company’s ability to reach consumers might be slow and unreliable. While Wheeler and ISPs claim that other companies won’t be impacted by the side deals, this doesn’t make sense. If some companies are paying to have their data sent to the front of the queue, everyone else’s data will be transmitted more slowly.

Established tech firms like Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) and Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) can afford to pay for such access, but the next startup that wants to compete with them would have to choose between higher overhead costs or offering an inferior product – who wants to put up with long load times on a movie if Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) is lightning fast? ISPs argue that they shouldn’t be asked to carry content for free, but of course that’s not what happens under strong net neutrality– their customers pay subscription fees for internet access. Under Wheeler’s plan ISPs will be allowed to double dip, charging both content providers and subscribers for the same service.

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