The Federal Communications Commission made the right call Thursday, ruling that access to the Internet will remain equal and unfettered. We’re happy about it. But we can’t help wondering, and worrying, about unintended consequences that could follow in the wake of this ruling. Not in the near-future, but in a future we can’t yet imagine.
By ruling for so-called net neutrality, the FCC classified the Internet as a utility. That means the huge Internet providers – cable television and telephone companies – cannot speed some content to customers willing to pay more while slowing content to those who can’t afford it. Such an arrangement would stymie innovation, curtail free speech, inhibit business and concentrate an entirely new profit stream into just a very few pockets – which explains why they are already intent on suing to overturn the new rules.
Critics say the FCC is picking winners. They’re right – just as it did in the 1960s when the FCC classified cable service a utility and gave cities the right to grant monopolies. That made huge winners of providers. By 1996, Congress had to overhaul the Telecommunications Act to increase competition. It ended the by-then-meaningless monopoly rules, but it was impossible to compete. Cable monopolies remain in place today.
Other rule changes allowed surviving cable companies to grow even larger, eventually gobbling up television networks and movie studios.
Thursday’s ruling was an effort to protect American consumers and nascent Internet-dependent businesses from the very corporate monsters (in terms of size) the FCC and Congress created. The new rules will guarantee everyone fair Internet access and keep those companies from charging you more to download your favorite movie faster.
Most feel the cable companies had it coming. Cable providers are some of the least-liked service providers in America. They forced customers to buy packages they didn’t want to get one channel they did. Instead of innovating and investing in better, faster systems, they pocketed profits. Most cable Internet systems are only half as fast as systems in South Korea, Switzerland, Japan and Sweden. America’s Internet speeds rank 14th in the world, behind Ireland and even Romania. Oh, and we pay four or five times more than people in those countries for inferior service.
If the FCC had ruled in favor of Comcast, Charter and Time Warner, we could expect more of the same – inferior service, higher prices. Naturally, those companies are unhappy. An AT&T spokesman told USA Today the FCC’s rules will inhibit new services, such as connecting refrigerators and garage doors to smartphones. Uh, we’ve had those apps for years.
It’s the nature of capitalism to innovate and maximize profits. Soon enough, someone will figure out a new essential service we don’t yet know we need. When that happens, competition will be fierce to provide it at the lowest possible cost. It’s what makes our system great. But that new company could be strangled at birth if the Internet were controlled by a few conglomerates who could dictate who gets the new service and how much extra we would have to pay.
Hopefully, the FCC’s new rules will protect us from that ... at least for a while.