At the end of the month, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on its firmest set of rules yet requiring broadband providers to maintain the long-standing principles of an open Internet.
In the most basic sense possible, the rules prevent big providers like Comcast and AT&T from speeding up, slowing down or blocking content from loading on Web pages.
It could become a historic moment in the online industry, because, for the first time, the federal government would treat Internet service like telephone companies and other public utilities.
And while just about everyone — Internet providers included — say they support the principles the FCC is aiming to protect, the detail about regulation is reviving a debate that’s more than a decade old.
For consumers, nothing would immediately change whether these rules pass or not. But many in the Lowcountry who have followed the debate say they worry about the future of the Internet without stricter measures to ensure it stays the way it is.
The arguments for and against new rules center around “net neutrality,” the concept that all Internet traffic — from music-streaming services to photo uploads — should be treated equally, and that broadband providers can’t slow down or speed up that traffic for any reason. This is how the Internet has always operated.
So, imagine the Internet is a highway, and that a handful of broadband providers own all the toll booths that are situated at all the key intersections. Everything has always run pretty smoothly, even without laws telling those corporations what to do.
But now, traffic is getting heavier because of Internet giants like Netflix, Amazon and Google. More people use streaming services, which takes up more bandwidth, or space, on that highway.
Longtime advocates of net neutrality fear that if the government doesn’t step in, nothing would stop big broadband providers from creating so-called fast lanes. That would mean websites using the most broadband would be charged extra to move quicker, since more and more people are using those services. This would change the way the Internet operates, and most people don’t want that, according to consumer surveys by a number of organizations, including the Internet Association.
The providers, particularly Comcast, say they’re the ones building all the infrastructure for this highway, that the Internet wouldn’t be what it is today without them. They want consumers to trust them to behave on their own without government regulators hovering over them. They argue that treating them like a public utility will stifle innovation.
David Parisi, a communications professor at the College of Charleston, said this debate has been around for so long because it’s difficult for people to choose which side they want to be on.
“If you frame this as, do you want the government out of your life, do you want the Internet to remain free of regulation? — the sort of knee-jerk reaction is, ‘Yeah, less regulation is better,’” he said. “But then if you ask it as — ‘Do you like the Internet the way that it is, and do you want it to stay that way?’ — most people respond to that pretty positively.”
Charleston is becoming a vibrant technology hub, and most of the companies in that industry that are setting up shop are Web-based startups. Many of them say all the money and energy they devote to creating online services just wouldn’t be worth it if they had to compete with deeper-pocketed businesses with access to the fast lane.
“The last thing I want to worry about is whether my large competitors can buy priority bandwidth,” said Joseph Hanna, the founder of a new career website Job Market Maker, which is headquartered in Charleston.
Austin Dandridge, owner of local Web development firm Cobble Hill, said that would also be a problem for companies like his that specialize in building websites for small businesses.
“If they want to create fast lanes and slow lanes for Internet users, it would be really a nightmare for us to do business in an affordable way,” he said, explaining that not only would his firm’s costs go up, but it may also lose clients if their websites aren’t seeing enough traffic.
While it might seem that Internet giants like Facebook and Google would enjoy preferential treatment, most say they don’t want fast lanes. However, they maintain that without net neutrality rules, nothing stands in the way of Internet providers from slowing down or blocking their content. In other words, companies fear they’d either have to pay up or live with the consequences of slower loading times.
Broadband companies have come under fire before for blocking or slowing Internet content. For instance, the FCC discovered several years ago that Comcast had slowed download times significantly for consumers using peer-to-peer sharing sites like BitTorrent in 2005.
Parisi of the College of Charleston said that kind of power threatens online innovators because often, new technologies can disrupt traditional industries. “So, if Twitter is competing with a mainstream news source owned by their corporation, why would they not throttle your access to Twitter?” he said.
The pending FCC rules are part of a larger federal push to improve Internet access in the United States, which lags far behind most Asian and European countries in terms of the cost and speed of broadband service.
Ernest Andrade, director of the city’s Charleston Digital Corridor, said this ultimately interferes with how smaller tech hubs like Charleston compete on a global scale.
“Considering the Internet was born in the U.S., I think we have failed to create a comprehensive broadband policy,” he said. “These are issues that have to be addressed as they become even more relevant to everyday life and commerce.”
President Barack Obama discussed the need for better broadband services across the country last month and commended smaller cities such as Cedar Falls, Iowa, for community-based initiatives to install superfast gigabit Internet that’s accessible to everyone.
MeadWestvaco Corp.’s Nexton community in Summerville is a local example of that. The packaging giant’s locally based real estate development arm has partnered with Moncks Corner-based network provider Home Telecom to deploy its GigiFi fiber-optic service to all residents and businesses in the 4,500-acre development. The infrastructure is said to be the first of its kind in South Carolina.
“Other providers may reserve using direct fiber connections for their larger corporate customers and only use fiber in parts of their network; using various technologies to make the final connection into most homes and businesses,” said Keith Oliver, senior vice president of Home Telecom. “Since a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, they end up not getting all of the benefits of fiber.”
Oliver added that he supports stricter regulations on major broadband providers because it has implications for all the smaller, community-based providers.
“We support regulation that would ensure no Internet service provider, large or small, could block or slow down traffic. Nor could they favor one content provider over another,” he said. “If Comcast can block Netflix, it can also block any other small network provider like Home Telecom. Or it can charge me large fees to bring traffic to them. ... What would end up happening is there would be a lot fewer small, independent network providers. And if you don’t have competitors, you can provide any kind of service you want and you can charge whatever prices you want.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail