In the early days of the Internet, cyberspace resembled the Wild West. The dot-com boom represented freedom and innovation at its finest as established businesses and startups alike turned to the World Wide Web to broaden their reach and blossom in a connected international marketplace. The beauty of the unregulated Web is that whether you’re a sole proprietor developing a new product that you want to market to the masses, or an established business trying to broaden your reach globally, everybody has the same chances and opportunities to succeed.

You see this same principle pop up all the time nowadays–the boom of bedroom musicians and producers is evidence enough, and even Justin Beiber can trace the beginning of his career to a couple of demo videos he uploaded to YouTube, leading to his discovery by superstar Usher. Unfortunately, that freedom is under fire as new trends in big data and analytics make the web more valuable than ever, and as governments and internet service providers around the world try to reign in and regulate the internet.

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The Concept of Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.

One of the most common examples that proponents of net neutrality refer to is this: should an internet service provider be able to offer plans based on what websites you visit, much like cable companies offer premium channels? An imaginary basic package might allow access to basics like Facebook and Twitter, while you’d have to pay for an advanced package to access media streaming sites like YouTube, Pandora, or Spotify.

Another extremely common example imagines that everybody has access to all sites on the internet, but unless you pay for a “fast lane” option you are going to be subjected to extremely slow load times. Furthermore, companies that want to be included in this “fast lane” service would have to pay extra to avoid frustrated users bouncing over to their competitors fast-loading site. This type of regulation would stratify the internet, killing the free-market feel and the basic equality that internet users enjoy today.

Loopholes in the Struggle for Neutrality

Comcast, the largest broadcasting and cable company in the world, has been testing the waters of net neutrality recently, and may have actually found a loophole in the FCC’s net neutrality regulations. In November of 2015, Comcast began offering its own video streaming service called Stream TV, which allows users to watch live local television and premium channels on their laptop, computer, or tablet. The caveat is that Stream TV users can only use the service from their homes. While this sounds like a huge downside to the plan, the appeal is that the service will not count towards the 300GB data cap inherent in most users’ plans, meaning that you can stream HBO all day long and never pay an extra dollar for using more data than you are allotted.

Comcast claims that they are not in violation of net neutrality laws because “Stream TV is an in-home IP-cable service delivered over Comcast’s cable network, not over the public Internet.” While this might sound fair to some, a game changer in television and video streaming technology may ensure that anybody interested in streaming video, whether it’s coming from HBO, Netflix, or from YouTube, will be essentially forced to buy into schemes like Stream TV.

4K Video and Beyond

4K Video, also known as Ultra HD or UHD, is the latest resolution format to hit viewers since 1080p. Currently, the consumer standard for 4K resolution is about 3840 x 2160p, which accounts for about four times as many pixels as the 1920 x 1080p that many are used to. The unintended side effect of packing more pixels into the resolution is that the data needed to stream 4K video is astronomical in the face of current convention. Basic back-of-the-napkin math would posit that about four times the amount of data is needed to deliver the upgraded service, meaning that instead of the basic 4.7GB/hour that 1080p streaming on Netflix costs, 4K streaming would bump up data consumption to about 18.8GB/hour. With rates like that, you’d blow through your 300GB cap after about 16 hours of 4K streaming–unless, of course, you had a service like Comcast’s Stream TV.

The Future and Our Reliance On the Internet

As technology advances, it’s inevitable that new applications, video formats, and media types will use more data. 4K streaming isn’t mainstream yet–but there was a time that 1080p streaming wasn’t either. Netflix, Amazon, Sony, and Comcast’s Xfinity have already begun to offer 4K streaming as the cost of compatible TVs continues to drop, foreshadowing a day when UHD becomes standard format. So what does this mean for the future?

With virtual and augmented reality poised to hit the market this year, and an ever-increasing Internet of Things that will rely heavily on a constant connection to the internet, we may see more companies trying to find direct-connection loopholes like Comcast has. It will be even more interesting to see how things play out as we integrate technology into our own bodies that will also, inevitably be connected to the internet and will use data.

Fortunately, the future is still somewhat in our hands. Websites like battleforthenet.com and savetheinternet.com offer resources on how to keep up the fight for net neutrality, and, when in doubt, you can always write your senators.

Remember, if you don’t create the future, somebody else will create it for you. Where do you stand in the fight for net neutrality?

Images used with permission from Backbone Campaign and Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr