All posts by Robert A Williams

Here’s How the End of Net Neutrality Will Change the Internet

Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon may soon be free to block content, slow video-streaming services from rivals, and offer “fast lanes” to preferred partners. For a glimpse of how the internet experience may change, look at what broadband providers are doing under the existing “net neutrality” rules.

When AT&T customers access its DirecTV Now video-streaming service, the data doesn’t count against their plan’s data limits. Verizon, likewise, exempts its Go90 service from its customers’ data plans. T-Mobile allows multiple video and music streaming services to bypass its data limits, essentially allowing it to pick winners and losers in those categories.

Consumers will likely see more arrangements like these, granting or blocking access to specific content, if the Federal Communications Commission next month repeals Obama-era net neutrality rules that ban broadband providers from discriminating against lawful content providers. The commission outlined its proposed changes on Tuesday, and published them Wednesday. The proposal would also ban states from passing their own versions of the old rules. Because Republicans have a majority in the agency, the proposal will likely pass and take effect early next year.

Because many internet services for mobile devices include limits on data use, the changes will be visible there first. In one dramatic scenario, internet services would begin to resemble cable-TV packages, where subscriptions could be limited to a few dozen sites and services. Or, for big spenders, a few hundred. Fortunately, that’s not a likely scenario. Instead, expect a gradual shift towards subscriptions that provide unlimited access to certain preferred providers while charging extra for everything else.

Net neutrality advocates have long worried that these sorts of preferential offerings harm competition, and by extension, consumers, by making it harder for smaller providers to compete. A company like Netflix or Amazon can likely shell out to sponsor data, but smaller companies don't necessarily have the budget.

"Net neutrality is incredibly important for small startups like Discord because all internet traffic needs to be treated as equal for us all to have access to the same resources as the big companies," says Jason Citron, co-founder and CEO of the videogame-centric chat and video-conferencing app Discord. Citron's company is well funded and boasts 45 million users. But it competes with larger players like Microsoft's Skype, Google's Hangouts, and Facebook's WhatsApp. Even if Discord can offer a better experience for gamers, bigger companies might be able to gain an advantage by partnering with broadband providers to prioritize or subsidize their apps.

For even smaller video providers, the end of net neutrality could be dire. "We believe this would affect more than just our voice and video equipment, but our entire ability to host folks interacting across our services," says Nolan T. Jones, managing partner and co-creator of Roll20, a video-conferencing and community platform for tabletop role-playing gamers.

It can be hard for smaller companies to even get a meeting with large broadband providers. In 2014, when T-Mobile launched a program that exempted music streaming services from its users’ data caps, the founder of streaming service SomaFM complained that his company had been left out. T-Mobile added SomaFM to the program a year later, but it’s not clear how many customers SomaFM may have lost in the interim.

The FCC ruled earlier this year that these data exemptions, known as "zero rating," are permissible under the current net-neutrality rules. Once those rules go away, the companies will be free to experiment with more drastic measures, like slowing connections to data-hungry apps.

Even Verizon's "unlimited" plans impose limits. The company's cheapest unlimited mobile plan limits video streaming quality to 480p resolution, which is DVD quality, on phones and 720p resolution, the lower tier of HD quality, on tablets. Customers can upgrade to a more expensive plan that enables 720p resolution on phones and 1080p on tablets, but the higher quality 4K video standard is effectively forbidden.

Meanwhile, Comcast customers in 28 states face 1 terabyte data caps. Going over that limit costs subscribers as much as an additional $50 a month. As 4K televisions become more common, more households may hit the limit. That could prompt some to stick with a traditional pay-TV package from Comcast.

It's not hard to see how companies could push these ideas further. Comcast could take a page from Verizon and stop customers from accessing any 4K content unless they pay for an unlimited account. And it could charge companies to sponsor data for their customers.

For now, Comcast says that’s off the table. “Comcast does not and will not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content,” Comcast Cable president and CEO Dave Watson wrote in a blog post Tuesday. AT&T and Verizon did not answer questions about future plans, but spokespeople pointed to blog posts saying the companies support the open internet.

But even without a dramatic departure from current practices, the future internet, then, could look a more extreme version of today's mobile plans, with different pricing tiers for different levels of video quality for different apps. That means more customer choice, but perhaps not in the way anyone actually wants.

Republican FCC Chair Ajit Pai argues that Federal Trade Commission will be able to protect consumers and small business from abuses by internet providers once the agency's current rules are off the books. But that’s not clear.

Democratic FTC commissioner Terrell McSweeny tells WIRED that the FTC is only an enforcement agency. It doesn't have the authority to issue industry-wide rules, such as a ban on blocking lawful content. In many cases, she says, the agency might not be able to use antitrust law against broadband providers that give preferential treatment to their own content or to that of partners.

"The FTC stands ready to protect broadband subscribers from anticompetitive, unfair, or deceptive acts and practices,” acting FTC Chair Maureen K. Ohlhausen said in a statement Tuesday.

The good news is the internet won't change overnight, if it all. Blake Reid, a clinical professor at Colorado Law, says the big broadband providers will wait to see how the inevitable legal challenges to the new FCC order shakeout. They'll probably keep an eye on 2018 and even 2020 elections as well. The courts could shoot down the FCC’s order, or, given enough public pressure, Congress even could pass new net neutrality laws.

UPDATED, 1:10 PM: This article was updated after the FCC published its proposal to eliminate net-neutrality rules.

Read more:

10 Cyber Monday Deals You Can’t Afford To Pass Up

Cyber Monday’s here, and these are the kind of deals that won’t break your bank, sending you into a state of self-encouraged stress sweats. 

  • 1

    Mini Happy Kit

    Pin It
    Via Fail Blog

    This one’s a must have for the committed smoker: no more stuffing papers and pipes in the vulnerable confines of an unprotected pocket. Instead, opt for the happy kit. This clutch bag fits in your pocket, and ensures Mary Jane safe travels. Grab yours over here!

  • 2

    Luxuriously Soft Queen Chevron Blanket

    Pin It
    Via Fail Blog

    Winter is here, guys. This is the kind of plush blanket that can entirely change the cozying up nap game, while you cave up and succumb to bouts of legendary Netflix bingeing. The blanket’s too good to be real life. It’s not fair. Like, you’ll be hard-pressed to NOT want to wear this 24/7. Can we just make it socially acceptable to rock this as a criminally comfy cape out in public, or what? Grab yours over here!

  • 3

    The Voting Game

    Pin It
    Via Amazon

    This game’s all about the cringe-inducing kind of conversations that amount to exposing who your friends really are. Awkwardness is inevitable, and hopefully the revelations themselves aren’t entirely ruinous to relationships. Grab yours here!

  • 4

    Poopyhead Card Game “Where Number 2 Wins!”

    Pin It
    Via Amazon

    Had to drop this on our Cyber Monday list, guys. Was it bring your angry kid to work and let ’em name a product day? Apparently, it was. Grab the game here, cause honestly, it’s some humorous room decoration at the very least. 

  • 5

    Beard Bib

    Pin It
    Via Amazon

    This is easily one of the more ridiculous products we came across today amidst sifting through the slush pile of Cyber Monday deals. While the picture itself is a bit comical, the product absolutely serves a helpful purpose. Let’s get a round of applause for hoping this could help further the cause in the fight against perpetually clogged sinks out there! Grab one over here for your SO or yourself! 

  • 6

    Exploding Kittens Card Game

    Pin It
    Via Amazon

    With a game that covers a variety of things like the (ever lovable) kittens or laser beams, and sometimes even GOATS, there’s a little bit of something for everyone. Snag yours over here!

  • 7

    MiP the Toy Robot

    Pin It
    Via Amazon

    This is easily one of the cutest little artificially intelligent robo-bros we’ve yet to come across. Miip’s gesture-based technology allows it to react to gestures like claps, touch, and more. Plus, you can connect it with your smart devices, and it reacts to apps like Spotify in adorable fashion. All in all, grab yourself one of these over here, and watch as your environment vastly improves. 

  • 8

    Grumpy Cat

    Pin It
    Via Amazon

    This one speaks for itself. Every person’s life stands to benefit with a side of Grumpy Cat hanging around. No matter how sour of a mood you’re in, this dude always stands to top it, with a profound frown on his face. Grab your new best pal over here!

  • 9

    Award-Winning Personal Water Filter

    Pin It
    Via Amazon

    This award-winning aptly named, “lifestraw” allows for you to drink water from any lake or stream around the world without the added hassle of boiling that water down till it’s safe. 

  • 10

    BL20 LED Projector

    Pin It
    Via Amazon

    Take your next movie night to the next level with this projector that has built-in high quality speakers, to boot! Grab one here.