Q: I noticed some streaming services are buffering more than normal on my phone, my kids said something about the throttle. When did cell phones get engines?
A: Mobile phones don’t have traditional engines, per se, but do have processors that determine how fast they can process information. However, that’s not what your kids were referring to. They were talking about bandwidth throttling, which is intentionally slowing down internet access to specific websites & apps by an internet service provider (ISP). Since the FCC repealed rules governing net neutrality, this has been a concern for consumers and consumer protection groups.
If you’re not familiar with Net Neutrality, it’s the position that all internet traffic should be equal opportunity. Basically, if you pay for internet service the speed with which you access any site or app would be the same. The Federal Communications Commission adopted net neutrality regulations in 2010, but then strengthened them in February of 2015. Despite some evidence that providers will still creating some internet ‘fast lanes’ for some content, it mostly kept things in check.
Unfortunately, after the 2016 elections a new FCC Chairperson (Ajit Pai) announced his intent to repeal the consumer protections in question just 3 days after the new administration took over. On December 14, 2017 net neutrality was repealed in the US.
What’s the big deal? Well, one of the biggest ones to consumers like you and me are concerns about bandwidth throttling. Essentially, providers pick and choose apps and sites that they want to slow down. Why would they do that to customers? Basically, money. Legalized bandwidth throttling opens up the possibility for providers to charge premiums to customers to get faster or higher quality access to content. It also allows ISPs to charge content providers if they want consumers to be able to access their content without restrictions. For example, Comcast could make Netflix pay a fee for a “fast lane” and then throttle Amazon, Hulu, etc.
This has another effect on the overall internet landscape, increasing barriers to entry and reducing ease of access to new or small companies. Sure, Netflix & Hulu can afford to pay a premium to limit throttling of their content, but that’s because they are large, established companies. Smaller companies may not be able to afford that additional cost. That means that even if a great idea comes along (think the next Facebook), it may never get off of the ground because their site is too slow.
Why would ISPs do this? Market share is the big answer. In recent years ISPs have been buying and merging with content providers. The most recent example being the AT&T merger with Time Warner which is currently under appeal by the Department of Justice (bit.ly/2NdJhKW). If an ISP owns or produces its own content and can slow down access to competitors, it creates a significant advantage for them. Think about it, if you want to stream a show and Netflix is buffering while Hulu operates just fine, which one are you going to watch?
ISPs have sworn they won’t throttle competitors and create fast lanes that make the internet readily available to those with deep pockets, but there is evidence that since the repeal of net neutrality regulations that it’s already begun (bloom.bg/2Nd35xv).
This PropellerHead is concerned about where this is going, and thinks you should be too. This trend hurts consumers like you and me by limiting choice and raising prices. It gives them an advantage over start-ups and small businesses to innovate and bring products to market. And when you hear one of them claim that they would never do so just to make money, keep in mind that Verizon (the largest carrier for mobile data in the country), reportedly throttled bandwidth and charged premiums to firefighters battling California wildfires in August 2018 (bit.ly/2PqESSx)! They have also silenced critics through acquisition (bit.ly/2sVQxjD).
This is normally where I would end the article with some type of totally hilarious joke, but frankly this isn’t a joking matter. If you want to preserve your rights as a consumer and halt practices like bandwidth throttling, I encourage you to speak out via groups like Battle for the Net (battleforthenet.com) to let Congress know how you feel.