If you’ve followed the news any time in the last year or so, you’ve probably seen some stories about the debate surrounding the concept of net neutrality. What most people don’t know is what in the world net neutrality means and if it will affect them or not. If you believe some of the stories, eliminating net neutrality as the internet service providers (ISPs – the “bad guys” – Verizon, Comcast, TWC, etc.) are trying to do will destroy the internet and the world will end right before our eyes. Of course the world won’t end and the internet will still work, but there could be some trickle down effects that will affect your business and your website. Then again, all three of the major American ISPs recently made it all the way to the Elite Eight in a tournament to determine the Most Hated Company in America, so giving them more power can’t really work out well, can it?

So what is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the concept that all internet content and access is treated equally. For our purposes, this means that all content providers (Netflix, Wikipedia, and most importantly, YOU!) should be given equal access to bandwidth by ISPs and governments. Another aspect of net neutrality is that ISPs and governments should not be able to selectively censor content delivered to users through the internet. This article will focus primarily on the bandwidth aspect of net neutrality because the censorship aspect is only intended to block illegal content and may be draw out in courts for years to come.

This week, the FCC voted to release a proposal to the public that would allow a so-called “fast lane” through the internet for companies that could afford it. The proposal will be open for public discussion through September 12, 2014 (120 days). The new FCC proposal is intended to replace the rules that were struck down by the Supreme Court in January.

The FCC’s new proposal has 3 main goals:

  1. That all ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network;
  2. That no legal content may be blocked; and
  3. That ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.

Now that you know what net neutrality is all about…

How could net neutrality effect you and your website?

It’s complicated. Really complicated!!!

Eliminating net neutrality could affect every person’s and every company’s access to particular resources. If ISPs are able to give preferential treatment to specific content providers, there will be a discrepancy among which ISPs offer faster or slower service for various content providers. At a personal level, the question you ask yourselves before signing up for an ISP in your home has been “Who is going to offer me the most speed for the least money?” That’s a pretty simple question to answer with minimal research.

If ISPs have control over connection speeds for individual services, however, that question could become mind numbingly complicated. At the business level, you will need to evaluate which ISP now offers the fastest speeds to the services you need. Who offers a faster connection to Google apps? Who offers faster connections to you video conferencing software? Who offers faster speeds to your own servers in Omaha? There will be dozens of questions like this that you will need to evaluate to determine how they will affect your business operations. You may very well need a giant Excel spreadsheet just to pick which ISP to sign up for. For some examples of services that will be faster on one ISP over another check out all of the entities owned by Comcast or owned by TWC. I’m guessing you use a couple of those services, right? It would be silly for ISPs to not give themselves preferential bandwidth if they’re allowed to, so you can almost guarantee that they will offer faster speeds for their own services on their own network. Good luck watching Game of Thrones on Verizon! My example becomes moot if TWC & Comcast merge. Eliminating net neutrality will most certainly complicate the current internet environment. Exactly how things will become complicated is a bit up in the air, but we can all agree it will be very very complicated.

Things Could Get Pricey

There is quite a bit of argument as to whether eliminating net neutrality will affect the cost of your internet service. On one hand, ISPs will have an incredible amount of power to charge whatever they want for specific content. On the other hand, ISPs could be making a fortune from content providers paying for more bandwidth and they might let the consumer off the hook. At this point, it would be pure speculation to go either way, but take a look at your internet bill over the last few years and let me know if it went up or down. I know which way it went. Giving ISPs more power probably won’t work in the favor of the little guy.

If content providers are forced to pay ISPs for preferential treatment, the expense of that would also trickle down to the consumer. If your video conferencing company has to pay more to get their content to all of the users, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the new expense will be passed straight to consumers. This applies to all bandwidth heavy internet services you may use. Web services in general may become more expensive.

Your Website Speed

This seems to be an issue that is not addressed in most discussions regarding net neutrality. If ISPs can control the bandwidth attributed to content providers, they can either slow down your site or speed up the sites around you that can afford it. Because site speed is a factor in search engine rankings, sites that pay for faster speeds may very well have their search engine rankings improve as well. As Google is vehemently opposed to eliminating net neutrality as proposed by the FCC, hopefully they will come up with a workaround for this situation to re-balance search engine rankings.

Additionally, your website’s speed directly affects your website conversions and bounce rates. Faster sites have better conversion rates and lower bounce rates. A quick Google search will provide you with articles that list endless evidence for this conclusion. If users have to wait for your site to load, they’re much more likely to go somewhere else. There’s no way to know how eliminating net neutrality would affect your website’s speed, but it’s almost guaranteed that it won’t speed it up unless you pay for it.

The Unknown

If you’ve made it this far, you should be wondering why on earth anyone would let this happen and who is it actually going to benefit. The truth is that eliminating net neutrality is only designed to benefit ISPs while inflicting minimal collateral damage on content providers and consumers. The only people arguing on behalf of eliminating net neutrality are ISPs, and so far they have been winning the legal battles. Everyone will have to wait and see how all of this will play out to really learn how it will affect the daily lives of consumers and businesses. All of the above could just be fear mongering that will never come to fruition. What is important is that everyone continue to monitor the developments regarding net neutrality and speak up if you decide that it isn’t a good idea.

Use this information however you wish:

Contact the FCC’s Consumer Center by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) voice or 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322) TTY; faxing 1-866-418-0232; or writing to:

Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, DC 20554