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The undoing of net neutrality?

During his tenure as chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler presided over the establishment of the Open Internet Order, which set more clear net neutrality rules.

The move earned him plaudits from consumer advocacy groups for issuing stronger net neutrality protections and ensuring a free and open Internet for users.

But that policy could potentially change. Current FCC chair Ajit Pai has proposed deregulating the industry, something he recently said would, “return us to the light-touch, market-based approach under which the Internet thrived.”

Needless to say, Wheeler has a contrary opinion: “They claim they help consumers when in fact they turn the Internet over to a handful of big companies.”

Wheeler, a 1968 graduate of Ohio State, recently shared his perspective on the potential changes with Insights.

How would you explain the concept of net neutrality to a layperson? 

Probably a better description is “open Internet” because the question is whether your access to the Internet will be closed in that it will be on terms dictated by the party from whom you buy your connection, or whether they will be required to provide open access based on a standard set of terms with which the networks must comply.

Think of the difference between your phone service (which is a common carrier, like what we enacted for Internet service) and your cable service (which is not).

On the phone network, anyone is allowed to get on and use the transmission, and privacy must be protected. On a cable network, the network decides who is allowed on, what price tiers they go in, and your privacy is not protected.

How would the policies proposed by the current administration change the way things are today?

Under the rules adopted in 2015, the companies to which you and I write monthly checks for Internet service are common carriers. This means that they must offer non-discriminatory access to all who want to use the network. With the repeal of these rules, networks will be able to block access to certain content, or throttle the quality of service or create fast lanes and slow lanes for service, depending on who will pay extra.

Are there specific groups that could be helped by the new policies? Who could be hurt?

The handful of companies that deliver your Internet service are the huge beneficiaries. The FCC is saying that not only will they reverse the rules we put in place, but also they will walk away from any oversight of the Internet.

Clearly, consumers are the big losers, as the Internet they rely on will offer lower services and higher prices. Another big loser will be the small businesses who rely on the Internet, a fact reinforced by a letter from over 200 small companies to the FCC describing how their ability to reach their markets will be hurt if the open Internet goes away.

The wonderful thing about the Internet is that it created a worldwide-accessible market for even the smallest business. Now, if the access to that market is blocked or throttled, or there are fast lanes and slow lanes depending on the ability of a company or a consumer to pay, there will be significant negative repercussions for small businesses.

What should we care about as consumers regarding anti-trust protections moving forward?

The big are getting bigger and more powerful. Soon we run the risk that these companies are so big and so powerful that they are too big to fix, and the competitive market is history.

Do you think net neutrality has stifled investment or innovation in our broadband infrastructure?

The most frequent argument heard is the non-factual statement that investment in networks has been hurt by the rules.

The data the companies submitted to the FCC themselves show that investment is basically unchanged since the rules went into effect. The companies have told Wall Street they intend to keep investing approximately 15 percent of revenue.

The companies are required by law to disclose to investors any adverse conditions that could hurt their business, and none has said the open Internet would have that effect.

And, of course, the fact that the companies' stocks are at record highs would certainly seem to put the lie to this myth.

Finally, what we do know is that investment in new startups that require the web is up, and that high-speed fiber to the home is up.