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Hard to be Neutral About Net Neutrality

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“Sign up now and get Facebook for free for six months with a two-year service agreement (regular rates and slow speeds apply after the promotion period).”

Could this be a glimpse at what’s in store, now that the U.S. appeals court decided to do away with net neutrality? For those in favor of neutrality (a.k.a Internet neutrality and network neutrality), most will say, “yes.” A loss of free and equal access will result in tiers or classes of Internet offerings, speeds and quality to the detriment of innovation, start-ups, new services and fair competition. The ISPs, who could now charge Websites premium fees for speedier deliveries or discriminate in other ways, say that they would never do such a thing. Hmmm. For the time being, it appears they have been true to their word.

The discussion is not new, but the court decision has thrust the topic to front and center. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates phone services, has the authority to set rules and regulations for ISPs to follow, which it did. The court essentially ruled that the FCC did so improperly and in an unenforceable manner. Back to the drawing boards. New, enforceable guidelines could be forthcoming, but who knows when.

Arguments abound on both sides, with one of the best explanations of the issues and potential impacts appearing on CNET.  In a recent discussion on Twitter, Netscape founder and now-venture capitalist Marc Andreessen succinctly summarized the two key positions in an extended Twitter exchange, saying that he would like to see the network remain open to all, but he also wants to see massive investment in new technologies. The challenge is how to make both of those things happen at the same time.

For ISPs (e.g. Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Cox Communications), net neutrality represents a potential loss of income, which, according to them, is a disincentive to making continued investments in new bandwidth and advanced technology. As was the case with the telecommunications industry of yesteryear, these ISPs don’t appear to have been dissuaded from building out infrastructure to this point ─ profitably at that. There is no arguing, however, that with Big Data and the Internet of Everything just getting rolling, a bandwidth snowballing effect is shaping up like nothing ever seen before. And, investment risk deserves reward.

Net neutrality is about so much more than free enterprise. Reducing access to a matter of the “haves” and the “have nots” could be a detriment to education, economic growth, job creation and social justice, awareness and interaction, to suggest just a few. Most would find that hard to argue against. But what’s the solution?

This is truly a national issue, a matter of the greater good, with implications extending far into the future. The model of Internet usage and access we’ve become used to has been transformational in every aspect of our lives, much as the Industrial Revolution was but in a fraction of the time.

The FCC needs to fix the mess it has gotten itself into over the past decade with create clear and enforceable rules, and take back the reins of authority.

Until now, net neutrality—the principle that ISPs treat all data transmitted on the internet equal, regardless of its size, type or origin—was protected by federal rules. For ISPs, however, net neutrality meant the loss of potential income. Websites such as Google will now likely pay ISPs a premium to have speedier delivery, and individual data plans based on household data use may become a staple of monthly wireless bills.

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