Right before you switched off for the holidays you probably heard that the FCC, or the Federal Communication Commission, repealed Obama-era laws regarding net neutrality.
As the net neutrality frameworks are wound-down we will potentially see Internet Service Providers (ISPs) looking to the mobile space as to what changes to put in place first.
What could mobile carriers and ISPs do under net neutrality?
Some elements of net neutrality did apply to mobile carriers (such as being prohibited from blocking competing applications like Skype) but carriers were free to prioritize and bill traffic differently.
Generally speaking, carriers used these techniques to differentiate themselves and offer ‘free’ services for streaming providers such as T-Mobile with Netflix, and AT&T with HBO.
Many US carriers have plans to provide ‘free’ streaming services such as YouTube but at a capped streaming rate of 480p or lower. Until this past week, under net neutrality, such a throttle would have been illegal on ISPs.
Mobile carriers have been free to block or throttle services and protocols such as tethering and even cancel the contracts of users who jailbreak their phones to enable such a service. This might set a precedent for ISPs to cancel users who attempt to bypass or circumvent new controls that are added.
Mobile carriers have perhaps had a pass by customers for this behavior due to the historical costs of mobile data. You have to go back to AOL CD-ROM days for when consumers were last charged per MB or hour by their ISP.
Furthermore, the fact that mobile devices can connect to Wi-Fi hotspots have perhaps led to their non-net neutrality behavior being forgiven as their customers can just connect to their home Wi-Fi from their mobile devices.
Carriers have also had the blessing of spectrum bidding and contracts to trade the cost of building large infrastructure, in return for having a larger control over how their networks are used.
How will ISPs adjust to the net neutrality repeal?
ISPs, on the other hand, are generally using infrastructure decades old and may find it harder to justify changing a service that has been delivered in an unrestricted manner for years.
Cellular networks are also more complicated. Many more stack elements that can affect performance and connectivity, which again gives a large reason for throttling of bandwidth-heavy services in the first instance.
With some exceptions, the ‘last-mile’ of an ISP connection is not subject to as much contention as a cell tower might be, restricting technical reasons an ISP may wish to take a cellular approach with their traffic.
Will it be regulated in some way?
Of course, many households now receive their ISP and mobile services from the same provider these days, perhaps furthering the lock-in to a specific brand of the internet. If we take one lesson from the role of mobile carriers on this matter, it’s that consumers may have to shop around and read the small print on their next ISP choice.
Regulation of ISPs is set to pass to the FTC who will ensure that companies disclose exactly what throttles, blocks and restrictions they place on their connectivity. That’s where there’s one glaring difference between ISPs and mobile carriers in the US. Whilst most Americans have a choice of at least two carriers from their home address and place of business, two-thirds of Americans only have one choice of ISP.
The new internet raises many questions
The repeal of net neutrality raises many questions for the future of the end user’s online experience.
Will we see Netflix subscribers have to pay a premium to their ISP to allow for 4K streaming? Will the Time Warner merger with AT&T lead to content consolidation and potentially the blocking of competitor’s streaming services?
If ISPs take the mobile lead, consumers may initially benefit from included services but how long will it take until we end up with a situation similar to the Amazon and Google YouTube feud? Will households and business be required to procure services and lines from multiple ISPs to gain access to the entirety of their internet needs? Or will some subscribers benefit from being able to access a type of Internet-lite, similar to what Facebook is prompting in India?
Only time will tell.