NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The Federal Communications Commission may be about to put an end to net neutrality.
In a set of new rules, the FCC will propose allowing telecommunication companies to offer high speed "fast lane" connections to content providers willing to pay for them. This would allow companies like Netflix, Google and Amazon to negotiate for more bandwidth at the expense of their competitors. It would apply to any form of content over the Internet, including video streaming, software downloads and online games as well as web pages.
This represents a near total reversal of position for the agency, which has twice banned precisely this sort of preferential treatment. Both sets of rules have been overturned in recent years by federal courts.
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The idea that telecommunication companies must treat all sources of content equally is called "net neutrality" and is one of the greatest political battlegrounds of the digital age. Industry lobbyists have long pushed for the right to charge content providers for premium access to their customers, while neutrality proponents argue that doing so would kill the openness and innovation that continues to build the Internet.
What will happen to the next video sharing service, neutrality supporters argue, if YouTube can ensure that it always has better performance regardless of whether it has better ideas? New services could die in the cradle while users could see connection speeds throttled based on the contracts that different companies have with their given broadband provider.
Although the new rule seems only to allow accelerated access, this does not necessarily address the baseline against which those packages would be. Without neutrality laws, telecommunication companies could not only offer preferential treatment but could also reduce the standard connection speed that they offer to all other sites.
Since bandwidth is a limited resource across any Internet connection, it seems likely that companies would have to either expand their capacity or pull the extra bandwidth from somewhere. Many content providers would have to pay in order to keep up and would likely pass those costs on to the customer.
Currently this rule remains only a proposal. The commission will vote on final approval of the proposal, along with any amendments, on May 15.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.