Over a year ago, we offered a handy guide for explaining net neutrality to your relatives. This holiday season, that conversation is a lot more fun. In the past 12 months, the FCC has issued the strongest open internet rules this country has ever seen—and the fun doesn’t stop there.
It feels like 2015 will go on record as one of the most important years for the internet since the creation of the World Wide Web. That might be overstating things, but protecting net neutrality is tremendously important to a free and open internet, and the battle is hardly over.
Faced with mounting litigation, a grumpy judge could still call foul on the FCC’s net neutrality play. But a handful of other milestones indicates that America’s historically slow and shitty internet is destined to get better.
From January through the dying days of 2015, here are the most encouraging things that have happened to broadband internet this year.
A federal court struck down the FCC’s net neutrality rules last January and, quite unfortunately, sided with big telecom in doing so. This was a bad thing that happened. Exactly one year later, President Obama visited Iowa’s first gigabit city and made a bold declaration that America desperately needs more internet service providers that aren’t controlled by giants like Comcast.
This is a really great idea! Due to a number of nonsensical factors, the Comcasts and Verizons of the nation enjoy natural monopolies in their respective markets. For instance, I live in Brooklyn just a few miles from the internet backbone, but I only have one choice for a high-speed broadband: Time Warner Cable. This wouldn’t be quite so frustrating if I actually got the speeds that I pay for. I don’t, and I don’t have any other options.
What Obama proposed ahead of the FCC’s new open internet rules was a sweeping program that would increase competition in the ISP market and compel companies to offer true broadband speeds. The president named cities like Cedar Falls, Iowa and Chattanooga, Tennessee as models for the rest of the country to follow. Even Google Fiber seems like a refreshingly less-than-evil option. Quite frankly, any additional competition would force the big telecom companies into improving their infrastructure and offering anything but absurdly awful customer services.
Adam Smith would agree: Competition is a good thing for any capitalist economy.
After the first attempt at preserving net neutrality, the FCC did a bad thing and proposed a widely loathed set of rules that would allow fast lanes. Also known as paid prioritization, this would’ve let big telecom companies favor certain types of traffic over others for a fee. It’s essentially the opposite of net neutrality.
A massive public outcry became deafening through the end of the year, and FCC chairman Tom Wheeler made an about face. Early this year, the agency revealed a new set of open internet rules that would reclassify the internet as a public utility and give broadband service similar regulatory protections as telephones. The rules also forbid paid prioritization, throttling, and blocking certain websites. Internet experts and net neutrality pioneers like Tim Wu praised the plan, and so did we.
The FCC voted to approve the rules in late February, winning a key battle for net neutrality. However, the war still isn’t over. As many people anticipated, the big telecom lobby banded together and challenged the rules in court, instigating a process that will likely take years to resolve. Nevertheless, the FCC has already made tools available for the public to yell about their ISP violating the new open internet rules. Read about how you can do that here.
Obviously, the only thing worse than a few internet companies with natural monopolies is even fewer companies with stronger monopolies. This almost happened earlier this year when Comcast and Time Warner Cable, America’s two most-hated companies, tried to merge. This would’ve given the corporate giant control over some 50-percent of the country’s broadband.
The FCC struck down the plan in the name of consumers’ best interest. However, this didn’t stop other big telecoms from trying to unite forces. In May, Verizon bought AOL, a gnarly move that subverts net neutrality principles and mixes content providers with a major ISP in a scary way. Then, in July, AT&T got the go ahead to merge with DirecTV, another unneeded consolidation of telecom superpowers. It’s too soon to tell what the specific consequences of these mergers are, but at least the Comcast-TWC failure provides a prescient for preventing more internet giants when they become too big.
While it’s easy for rich people and city dwellers to complain when their Netflix streams stutter, there are millions of people in America who simply don’t have access to high-speed internet. In order to address this growing problem, the FCC passed a couple of nuanced proposals to redefine broadband as a connection with 25Mbps or faster and later approved a plan to subsidize broadband connections.
These two actions stand to help low-income Americans and those who live in remote areas the most. By redefining broadband, the FCC can crack down on ISPs who advertise broadband speeds that are too slow to support data-heavy traffic like streaming video. The subsidized broadband service means that those who can’t afford high-speed internet access can get help from the government.
Heck, if we can subsidize certain crops to help farmers, we ought to subsidize connectivity to help everyone.
It’s not easy to create a new ISP, especially one that offers future-proof speeds like gigabit internet. Laying fiber can be expensive, and there are a ton of regulatory hurdles to jump over. In nearly half the states, there are even laws that prevent new companies from offering internet service, legislation that won approval with help from big telecom lobbies.
But as President Obama made clear, everybody wins when there’s more competition in the broadband business. (Comcast might disagree, but of course they do.) That’s why this year’s proliferation of new and innovative startup ISPs is so exciting. More and more small companies are working with municipal governments to offer faster broadband at lower prices. Cities like Chattanooga that pioneered this movement are also actively helping others follow their lead.
Even the heavy hitters in Silicon Valley are starting new initiatives and moving into the ISP space. Google Fiber is undoubtedly the best-known example and has continued to expand this year. The fact is that legacy telecom giants like Verizon have royally screwed up their own plans to roll out fiber-based networks. For once, it feels like the little guys have a chance.
If 2015 has done anything to improve the internet, it’s to show that progress is possible. As high-speed broadband has become increasingly important not only for Americans but also the American economy, it’s clear that we can’t continue to offer some of the worst internet services among the world’s wealthiest nations.
The US invented the internet. There’s no reason we can’t turn our sordid history of crappy connections into the best network on Earth. Let’s just hope that all the good things that happened this year will make 2016 an even better one for the web.
GIF by Jim Cooke.