If you’re like those typical Americans than it’s for sure that you’re not a fan of your cable company. You can possibly think of at least one experience that had you pulling your hair out. In fact, from year to year, cable companies are consistently ranked at the very bottom of the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. But if you think things are bad then be prepared to face the worse under the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to turn control of the Internet over to your cable and Internet provider.
The Internet is regarded as an open platform for content, speech and information. Now the FCC is set to vote Thursday on a proposal by Republican Chairman Ajit Pai to obliterate the rules that keep it that way and in their place, he offers almost nothing. He’ll take control of the Internet from the American people and hand it over to existing Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, empowering them to generate new profits by minimizing the access.
Under Pai’s plan, ISPs can charge web companies for “fast lanes,” holding those who can pay ransom for better service and leave little guys who can’t pay in the dust. Meanwhile, none of that money will be given on to consumers in the form of lower rates. If anything, your rates are probably to increase.
If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s the same what happened to the cable industry years ago, and it’s why you likely hate your cable company.
Once upon a time, cable was seen as the insurgent ‘outlaw’ of the 1960’s media scene. The new medium challenged the ironclad control broadcast radio and TV networks had over content and introduced unprecedented competition and preference. But with time, the old industry incumbents wrested control back, and soon it became the monolithic industry we think of today.
Fast forward 20 years, traditional cable companies were the major arbiters of information and entertainment, evaluating the majority of what consumers got to see in their curated channel line-ups. This created the consolidated market power that meant high prices and considerably few choices we know it as today.
Then the Internet came along and broke this business model wide open. Suddenly, viewers at home saw a bombardment of creating new content and voted with their clicks, not their wallets. Essential to the Internet’s growth was net neutrality: All (legal) traffic worked at the same speed over the network, irrespective of ownership or content.
Cable companies stressed this threat to their business, so they monopolized on Internet connectivity themselves. If you own the pipes and manage the speed of content produced by both you and your competitors, you can simply slow transmission for their content or make them pay more for faster access.
Luckily, no one wanted to watch the big companies turn the Internet into the consolidated high-walled cable industry. So over two decades as the Internet grew up, the FCC made sure that it was keeping safe the net neutrality principles. Republicans and Democrats agreed that some form of a cop on the beat was needed to keep the companies in proportion and the Internet open.
Until now. If Pai gets his way, we can all bid goodbye to competitive apps and services, and the freedom to choose our own experiences online. Maybe you prefer Netflix content, but if AT&T’s own DirectTV content doesn’t count against your data cap, there’s a number of reasons to choose that instead. Instead of paying a flat price for access to use any app or service free of charge, companies could start bundling services into “social,” “video,” and so on. Maybe you prefer Twitter but instead of a free download, you’ll have to buy control to it in a package with Facebook and Snapchat, to the tune of $4.99.
This isn’t hypothetical. Countries without net neutrality already practice these business models. Over the past year with the promise of zero accountability on the horizon, the cable ISPs have grown bolder about their plans to cable-ize the Internet. As recently as last week, Comcast, the largest cable-ISP in the country, quietly dropped its promise not to charge for Internet fast lanes.
Once Pai goes through with his plan to gut net neutrality, there is few anyone can do right now to stop the cable-ization of the Internet. And soon we all will be sighing: “Once upon a time, the Internet was seen as the insurgent ‘outlaw’ of 21st-century media.”