Max Sheehan
Valley Voices

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June 13, 2014
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Vail Daily column: If it ain’t broke ...

During the past few months, you have likely overheard the phrase “net neutrality,” but may not have a clear idea of what it is and why people are talking about it. Simply put, net neutrality is the idea that all data on the Internet is equal — that when you open any two websites side-by-side, they will load at the same speed, regardless of who owns them.

Currently, the Internet is an information super-highway and there is only one lane. A video on vaildaily.com will load just as quickly as one on CNN.com, and nobody outside of the Vail Daily or CNN can change how quickly videos load on their respective websites. This ensures that Internet service providers such as Comcast, Time Warner or Verizon cannot charge vaildaily.com to maintain equal-footing with CNN.com, or vice versa. Net neutrality is vital to a vibrant and operational Internet that fosters innovation — an Internet that, unless the FCC changes its current course, looks to be a thing of the past.

The FCC, headed by Tom Wheeler, recently caused a bit of a firestorm in the online community by proposing a new set of rules that opens the door for massive changes to the Internet, most of which have the potential to do far more harm than good. The heart of his proposal grants ISPs the ability to charge websites additional fees for access to an Internet fast lane. Key to what makes today’s Internet so functional is bandwidth — more bandwidth equals more speed. In the current system every site has equal access to bandwidth, every site loads at the same speed and is part of the same Internet. And while Mr. Wheeler’s assertion that his proposal will maintain “one Internet,” and not create “a fast (Internet) or a slow Internet,” might be accurate, it will certainly create a “faster” Internet and a “slower” Internet. For an Internet “fast-lane” to work at even faster speeds, it needs more bandwidth, of which there is a limited supply. This extra bandwidth must be taken from the “regular” Internet, making “regular” websites considerably slower.

The ability to create “fast lanes” gives cable companies that also provide Internet service an unfair advantage over businesses that offer Internet-based video content, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Rather than offering more competitive prices or improving customer service to better compete with streaming content providers, the Comcasts of the world aim to get a leg up on their web-based rivals by either limiting the bandwidth available or charging them extra for access to the “fast lane,” and in doing so, pocket a portion of their competitor’s profits. In either case, consumers suffer.

If Comcast shrinks the data stream for Netflix to the point where it is essentially unwatchable, then consumers are forced to either deal with a substandard Netflix or rely solely on Comcast to watch their favorite movies and TV shows at nearly $70 per month. In this scenario, Comcast has no incentive to lower its monthly fees or to improve customer service, as it has severely hindered its online rivals by forcing them to sell an inferior product.

If the FCC gives Comcast the ability to charge its Web-based competition for the privilege of using a “fast lane,” then the extra fees paid by a Netflix or an Amazon Prime will be passed down to the consumer, as their subscription costs will rise significantly. In this scenario, Comcast has little motivation to lower prices, as their chief competitors’ monthly fees will have conveniently spiked.

The same logic applies to other online services that offer more affordable rates — Skype and Google Voice are good examples — and happen to be in direct competition with Comcast or Verizon.

In neither of these circumstances does the customer benefit, nor is Comcast compelled to improve its product, customer service, or offer more competitive rates. More troubling is that potential start-ups would be handicapped from the outset, unable to pay for access to “fast lanes” without significant financial backing. In this potential future the creation of currently unthought-of groundbreaking and innovative products — Facebooks, Instagrams or YouTubes — becomes increasingly difficult and exceedingly improbable.

Each of these scenarios is quite likely if the FCC’s proposal passes. And unless something drastic happens in the very near future, Wheeler’s proposal will pass.

If any of this makes you mad, then good. You should be upset. Because you probably will soon be paying a lot more for a lot less.

Because before being appointed as FCC chairman, Wheeler worked as a top lobbyist for cable and wireless companies.

Because, if you’re like most people, you found out about this issue on an HBO comedy show instead of the CNNs of the world.

Fortunately, America remains a democracy, and you can effect change (or in this case, prevent it). Despite the efforts of the two-headed monster that is Comcast’s deceptive advertising campaign and its insanely powerful lobbying arm, your voice still matters.

We are in the midst of a 120-day period where the FCC is seeking public comment on this issue, before it decides whether to cement Wheeler’s proposal. If any of this seems unfair, dishonest, or unbelievably frustrating, then please use the tools at your disposal to stop this nonsense.

Go to either fcc.gov/comments or send an email to openInternet@fcc.gov and request that Wheeler and the FCC reject their new proposal, classify the Internet as a “Title II Common Carrier,” maintain an open Internet and keep the Internet as we know it alive and well.

Max Sheehan grew up in the Vail Valley, attending Battle Mountain High School. He currently teaches English, history and world religion at Kampala Diplomatic School in Uganda.

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The VailDaily Updated Jun 13, 2014 08:57PM Published Jun 13, 2014 02:00PM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.