As much as I love all the technical goodies we’ve been blessed with in this digital age, I do have the odd moment when I long for the way things used to be. Like last week, when the episode of House of Cards I was watching on Netflix juddered and stopped, and I spent the next half-hour rebooting various black boxes so I could find out how Frank Underwood’s latest machiavellian scheme worked out. That never used to happen with cable.
One of the reasons my Netflix service acts up from time to time is because streaming video eats up tons of bandwidth, and it’s fighting against all the other traffic on the net to get to my Apple TV. If only the digital carriers could prioritize streaming video traffic, then my shows would go jaggy a lot less often.
Well, it turns out that the cable and telecom companies not only can prioritize video traffic—they’d love to. They haven’t been allowed to though, because of regulations protecting “net neutrality”: the fundamental principle that all content on the web should be treated the same by Internet service providers (ISPs), no matter what kind of data it is. Luckily, in the U.S., the era of net neutrality looks like it’s about to end—and thank God for that.
In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s old net neutrality regulations, and just yesterday, the FCC responded by voting 3-2 to advance a new set of Internet rules. If adopted, the new rules would ban large broadband firms like Verizon and Comcast from purposefully slowing down or discriminating against different types of data, but they would allow content providers to pay extra to access a virtual Internet fast lane.
You’d think that Netflix and YouTube would be thrilled—finally, ISPs can prioritize their content—but that’s not what’s happening. You see, the big streaming video guys have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Yes, they do want ISPs to be allowed to stream their content faster than other data—but they don’t want to be forced to pay for it.
Netflix is worried because only a few major distributors like Comcast control access to almost all the homes in the U.S. (it’s a similar situation in Canada), so ISPs could potentially charge outrageous rates, and it would have no choice but to pay up or go out of business. Under the old regulations, all data had to be treated (and priced) exactly the same.
So it’s a much more complicated issue than the net evangelizers who preach that annoying “free the data” gospel would have you believe. Under the old rules, Netflix, YouTube and Skype were getting free rides, because they could flood the Internet with data, slowing down everyone else’s traffic in the process. (And they did: Netflix and YouTube alone account for as much as 50% of all peak fixed network data in North America.) Under the new regulations, ISPs would be able to charge the data hogs more to cover the cost of investing in their networks to accelerate all that extra video traffic.
Which situation sounds more fair to you? To me, there’s no doubt that it will be better for everyone if the net neutrality rules are tossed out, the FCC stays out of the way and ISPs are allowed to charge the true cost of carrying streaming video. The regulators could always cap rates to prevent any gouging. With the extra cash, ISPs could then upgrade their networks so that everyone gets better streaming video service. Yes, that means Netflix will have to pay more in network fees, so my monthly bill for watching House of Cards will likely go up. But, hey—if my shows stop stalling right in the middle of the exciting bits, I’ll consider it money well spent.