The FCC may have soundly rejected the legal constraint of network neutrality, but that’s not the end of the story. In fact, it’s the beginning of the next chapter that will spur a plethora of new Internet access options and, perhaps, a multiverse of Internets as well.
The Battle Is For The Old Internet
All the friction about who owns and controls the Internet right now is about the old Internet. That’s the Internet born of a cold war research project that was built-out to connect universities and research labs and later released to commercial interests. It’s that Internet that came of age in the 90’s and matured over the last two decades we call “The Internet.” Someday, we’ll refer to it as the old Internet, classic Internet or even historic Internet.
The pitched battle is really over just a part of the Internet which is Internet access or, in telecom lingo, “last mile access.” That’s your cable connection, Google or FIOS fiber, your smartphone 4G, phone line DSL, Wireless Internet, or, out in the boonies, satellite broadband. Business locations have other options that include T1 lines, SONET and Ethernet metro fiber, fixed wireless and even optical laser. All of these do one thing. They connect you to the Internet. By themselves, they aren’t the Internet.
The Internet isn’t a single network. It is a network of networks. That’s where the name comes from. It is an inter-network system of standardized connections. The Internet Protocol (IP) or the combination of TCP/IP is the technical standard for how everything talks on the Internet. It’s become so pervasive that IP is just about the only standard used for digital communication anymore.
Who Owns The Internet?
Nobody owns it. It literally reeks of democracy and globalization. There are thousands of individual networks that connect through other networks. A handful of Tier 1 networks provide what is called the “backbone” of the Internet. They share data back and forth on a peering basis at no charge. Everybody else connects through a lower tier network until we get to the ISPs, or Internet Service Providers, that offer that last mile access. There are international governing organizations that do things like assign IP addresses (ICANN) and oversee technical standards.
So, How Can ISPs Kill Net Neutrality?
The battle over net neutrality is centered on the last mile connection served by ISPs. They don’t run the Internet but they do determine how you access it. ISPs already charge higher rates for higher speed access (in Mbps) or more total data usage (in GB). The concern is that they will next charge more for better access to some services than others, or start bundling content the way cable and satellite TV does so you have to buy packages of your favorite services instead of having equal access to everything on the Internet.
Before net neutrality was officially rejected, cellular service providers already had a workaround. The company that provides your cell phone service is also your wireless ISP. Their clever ploy is to let you use as much of certain services, say Netflix, as you want without having that count against your monthly data limit. Everything else burns Megabytes until you hit the limit. If you are a heavy user of a favored service you will naturally want to be on the cell service that gives you free data.
Battle In Congress and The Courts
Right now the battle royal is a political and legal fight to the death that aims to either reverse the FCC order through congressional action or duke it out with the ISPs state by state. You can bet the administration and the ISPs are going to fight this tooth and nail. The ISPs believe that the best case outcome is the status quo, where they decide on a business basis what services and pricing to offer, and to whom.
Ironically, the status quo might wind up being the worst case scenario in the end for those same ISPs. If they simply use their expanded freedom to charge streaming video services more for heavy use of resources or give priority to sensitive applications like VoIP telephony and video chat, this crisis will likely blow over. But if the temptation to overreach is too great and we wind up with a dozen packages of pre-approved website access, it will lead to their undoing likely sooner than anyone expects.
How Net Neutrality Protects Legacy ISPs
Most of us are pretty complacent. We have our 4G smartphone wireless and a pretty fast and reliable cable broadband connection. Internet access has become invisible to us. Why would we be looking for a change? What would we change to?
It’s a symbiotic relationship. The ISPs treat us well and we don’t whine about them being monopolies. The telephone companies can keep their DSL and the cable companies can keep their cable broadband. The only people complaining are the ones who live past the end of the wires and need to get by with cellular broadband limits, find a WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider) if one exists, or install satellite and live with lower speeds, high latency and severe data limits.
New Technology Is Near
Once cable, DSL and perhaps wireless subscribers start becoming irritated, the seeds are sown for a revolution in Internet access options. That revolution has been brewing for a long time now and is just waiting for a catalyst. The Internet of Things (IoT) looks to be that catalyst. Once every light bulb, nursery cam, door lock, refrigerator, and automobile wants its own Internet connection, the system is going to sag under the weight. This is especially true for self-driving cars and trucks that can’t be tethered with a network cable and need higher bandwidth than 4G can deliver.
The wireless carriers, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc., are in a fevered pitch right now to test 5G technology and be first to market with an order of magnitude speed increase along with low latency. Latency, or time delay, is important for anything you want to control in real time or for two-way services like phone calls, video chats, virtual and augmented reality.
Look To The Sky
The big wireless carriers are not alone. One attractive approach to everywhere access is to eschew cell towers in favor of flying access points. Google’s Project Loon is proving that a system of balloons drifting in the stratosphere can provide reliable high speed wireless broadband for the island of Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria took out the towers and terrestrial power.
Even more ambitious is Elon Musk’s plan to launch more than 4,000 small satellites into low earth orbit (LEO) to create a networked swarm of wireless access points. The satellites are constantly moving, of course, but there will always be some overhead to provide your signal. It will work a lot like GPS, with the enough coverage to blanket the entire Earth with Internet broadband. Unlike geostationary satellite service that is available now, the reduced distance from ground to orbit will allow latencies similar to cable, wireless and fiber. The huge number of “birds” in the flock will deliver enough capacity that very high or unlimited usage limits will be possible.
Loss of Net Neutrality Could Be the Tipping Point
The 5G competition that has just started may get extra impetus from ISP greed. When users start seething over high costs and limited selections, disruption of the status quo will be triggered. Look no further than the “cord cutting” movement. Satellite and cable TV are on the wane because consumers are stampeding to on-demand Internet delivered content. Convenient and sophisticated smartphones quickly demolished telephone land lines after a century of domination. Cord cutting is now moving television and radio to the Internet. Over-the-air broadcasting is next to fall, with valuable spectrum sold off to wireless companies.
The new stampede won’t be to a completely different technology from the Internet. It will be a multiplication of choices in how we get our Internet service. Disgruntled customers may encourage a buildout of fiber optic lines from someone other than the telephone or cable incumbents. More likely, delivery is going to be via wireless, even if that means installing a small outdoor antenna for micro cells or LEO satellite.
Other options are available. They are developed but not widely deployed. “White Space” bandwidth is the unused portion of the TV spectrum that hasn’t already been sold off. Much of the UHF TV spectrum is still occupied, but hardly full-up. Even in major cities the stations are spaced far enough apart to guarantee no interference. Everything in-between is available for repurposing as long as it doesn’t cause interference to the local TV stations. Smart transmitters can easily navigate this ocean of spectrum to find channels available for sending alternative wireless Internet service.
Could the Internet Become a Multiverse?
One nagging concern is what happens when the Tier 1 bandwidth suppliers, operators of the fiber optic backbone networks that haul the Internet over long distances, decide that they are going to rule on who pays what for content delivery. That creates a whole different scale of problem for net neutrality. If you want to get away from that tyranny, you’ll have to go to a different Internet.
But, wait. Doesn’t Internet mean a commons where everyone interconnects? That was the intent, but if we’re going to start eroding network neutrality, who knows where it’s going to end. We might have to consider the unimaginable… multiple Internets.
This could wind up something like the current situation where you subscribe to a variety of independent content providers to get your favorite on-demand TV shows. Netflix, Hulu, HBO & Amazon each have their own fees and no commonality other than the Internet. Imagine having multiple Internets available, each with near-universal accessibility but some unique content and rules. We might all be subscribing to several ISPs just to get the full access we have now… and that would be a shame.