There’s been a lot of speculation about what could happen if “net neutrality” rules are repealed in a vote later this week, much of it frightening in nature.
Your favorite websites and apps could load slowly, while others may not load at all, unless you — either directly or indirectly — cough up more money for better web speed and broader access.
Some online content could be blocked and free speech censored altogether, no matter how much you’re willing to pay. Start-up web companies may struggle to gain their footing.
Those fears, however, are largely, if not entirely, hypothetical. The truth is no one is sure what will or won’t happen. Experts and stakeholders have predicted a wide range of possible outcomes, including that the repeal may wind up having no discernible impact on the Internet.
But if even just some of those worries come to fruition, there’s one simple fact that highlights how many consumers will be left essentially powerless to do much about it.
The vast majority of households in the United States have little, if any, choice which company they get their Internet access from.
That means if you find yourself unhappy with your Internet service’s speed, access, or other features in a post-net neutrality world, you may just have to learn to live with it.
About 40.6 million households nationwide, about 34 percent, are connected to only one Internet provider (i.e. companies such as Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner) offering entry-level download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second. That’s according to a recent analysis of data from the Federal Communications Commission.
Another 51.8 million households, or 44 percent, can choose between just two companies to buy Internet from at that speed, the analysis found.
A much smaller chunk, 16.4 million homes, or about 14 percent, have access to three or more such providers. (Another 9.3 million homes are not connected to any Internet provider offering speeds of at least 25 mbps.)
Shane Greenstein, a Harvard Business School professor and an expert in the digital economy, said the consolidation of cable companies and Internet providers over the years has helped bolster the fears that are the cornerstone of the argument for keeping the existing net neutrality rules in place.
“The typical city in the United States has just two providers,” he said. “You’re pretty lucky if you have three.”
He and other experts said cost is a major reason why consumers don’t have more options. Connecting homes with wires is expensive. And wireless technology is not yet capable of delivering the quality Internet service of a wired connection.
If consumers had more choices, it might lessen the fears about repealing net neutrality rules.
“Ultimately, getting more broadband options to people is really important” said Daniel Lyons, a law professor at Boston College who specializes in telecommunications.
Matt Rocheleau can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mrochele