As the Federal Communications Commission nears a fateful decision on network neutrality, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Y2K all over again.
You may remember Dec. 31, 1999. That’s the last time the Internet was expected to die, because millions of computers were going to crash when their internal clocks failed to turn over to the year 2000. I sat in the Globe’s newsroom, waiting for the end. Nothing happened. It was quite a letdown.
Now here comes another “apocalypse.” On Dec 14, the FCC is expected to abandon the Obama administration’s policy on so-called Net neutrality, in which the government forces Internet providers to treat all data equally. Activists say it’s the end of the Internet as we know it, with giant Internet providers like Comcast and AT&T free to block or slow down access to key online services unless they’re paid extra to let the data flow.
But I’m betting hardly anything will change. Not the day after Dec. 14, the month after, or the year after.
I’m as subject to panic as the next guy, but I can’t see much reason to freak out over the supposed death of Net neutrality.
I’m on board with the principle that Internet carriers should not be allowed to block certain Internet services or deliberately slow them down to make them less accessible. Many activists go further and reject “paid prioritization,” or giving superior “fast lane” service to consumers willing to pay extra.
Serious breaches of Net neutrality are pretty hard to find. An activist group called Free Press published a “greatest hits” list of alleged violations. They found 12. Oops . . . make that 10. In two decades of widespread Internet use in America, they couldn’t find even a dozen significant violations, so Free Press padded the list with two cases from outside the United States. Even the remaining 10 are questionable cases that may have been driven by network security or traffic management disputes, rather than by efforts to stamp out rivals.
Still, the Net neutrality lobby, which includes massive users of Internet services such as Google and Netflix, wanted tougher regulatory protection. They got it in 2015, when the FCC decided to regulate the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.
Some called it a life preserver for Internet freedom; I call it regulatory overkill on a massive scale. Even the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a staunch supporter of the Title II approach, warned in 2015 that a portion of the plan “sounds like a recipe for overreach and confusion.”
The FCC was empowered to decide if a network provider’s products were good for consumers, and innovative new services were suddenly viewed with suspicion. For instance, the agency went after cellular companies for daring to offer free video and music streaming services, though it eventually backed down.
The new powers were so broad that then-FCC chairman Tom Wheeler promised to use them with restraint. But what about Wheeler’s successors? Armed with Title II, they could turn the Internet into something like the old Bell System telephone monopoly, famed for its near-total lack of technical innovation. The Internet, by contrast, has seen two decades of creative ferment, mainly because nobody had to ask permission to trot out something new.
Meanwhile, all too slowly, the real solution to the network neutrality problem is taking hold: broadband competition. An analysis of FCC data by Economists Inc. found that some 61 million US households have access to at least two broadband providers offering entry-level download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second. That’s a little less than half the homes in the country.
More competitors are in the pipeline. AT&T, which didn’t previously offer broadband in Boston, is starting to deploy a new technology called G.Fast in city apartment buildings, with speeds of up to 500 megabits. And 5G wireless systems capable of similar speeds are being tested. This is still far too little broadband competition, but it is enough so far to prevent the worst excesses of digital discrimination.
Imagine Comcast Internet blocking access to, say, Amazon Prime Video, so subscribers would use Comcast’s video service instead. Millions of angry customers, including many in Boston, could then switch to a rival service — and probably would, I suspect. Any additional revenue to Comcast’s video services would be offset by all those lost subscriptions.
Those who couldn’t switch would set the phone lines to Washington on fire. President Trump may have a thing against Jeff Bezos, but I have a hard time imagining the bureaucrats at the Federal Trade Commission ignoring a million angry Amazon customers. The FTC won an unfair trade practices lawsuit against TracFone Wireless in 2015 for data throttling. So I would expect them to make a similar run at Comcast.
Better yet, Congress might finally get to work. A bill drafted in 2015 by several Republican congressmen could solve the Net neutrality debate with a minimum of regulatory dead weight. Just seven pages long, it would simply ban networks from blocking or throttling data or from charging extra for “fast lane” Internet services — and stop far short of all the myriad ways Title II lets regulators second-guess an Internet provider’s every move.
But what’s more likely to happen is . . . not much.
What Internet company would put itself in the crosshairs of public outrage, just to gain a slight and temporary advantage over a rival? Maybe the carriers aren’t noble and decent, but they aren’t dumb, either.
So never mind Dec. 14. The real fun comes on Dec 15, and on all the days thereafter, as it gradually sinks in that even without Net neutrality the Internet will be just fine.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.