On December 14, 2017, FCC regulators officially approved a plan to rescind existing online consumer protections, effectively thrusting the phrase “net neutrality” to the forefront of our collective consciousness. It’s a topic that’s gained more momentum over the past several weeks as companies of every size, as well as individual users, grapple with how this vote will impact business and our day-to-day lives. In short, we all want to know what it all means.
So. What does it all mean?
As we unravel the uncertainty of any pending digital restrictions, it’s important to first define net neutrality. At its core, net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers should make all online content and applications readily available to users, regardless of its source. It’s a concept designed to ensure competing providers can’t favor, block, or impede various websites for their own commercial gain. At first glance, it seems a universal slam-dunk; a win/win for pretty much everyone (except perhaps the Internet giants), right?
Well, it’s not that simple.
As it turns out, net neutrality isn’t everyone’s online cup of tea. The concept has caused significant discord amongst business owners and individual surfers alike. Advocates of net neutrality argue that this policy grants users a free and open Internet platform and ensures consumers won’t have to pay more to access content.
Opponents, however, contend that net neutrality regulations are unnecessary for a wide range of reasons. Some assume broadband service providers will continue to play nice with consumers and won’t intentionally degrade digital performance. Others believe that repealing current provisions will actually increase competition within the broadband and wireless provider sector, effectively generating more options for consumers.
How Will The Repeal Of Net Neutrality Impact The Digital Experience?
No matter where you stand on the recent repeal, one thing is certain: change is afoot. The dismantling of net neutrality may impact content and product developers, and by extension, consumers, in two potentially significant ways:
Package And Delivery
Eliminating neutrality regulations can change how content and sites are promoted and delivered to consumers. Some experts fear that without net neutrality regulations, Internet providers may be encouraged to bundle websites into prepackaged options, much like modern cable television subscriptions. Under this system, gaining access to some of your favorite (and formerly, free) sites may require a premium package subscription.
Access And Speed
Yes, removing net neutrality may foster competition amongst Internet providers; however, that competition could come at a cost…to consumers. Access to and speed of popular sites would not be shared equally by all. It’s a classic “pay more/get more” paradigm. Consumers who are ready, willing, and able to pay more will have access to more and faster sites, while others are left with the basic (potentially slower and more limited) tier.
Not only will changes in delivery, access, and speed have a direct impact on the overall user experience, they can also prove particularly problematic for individuals that rely on the Internet for vital services, such as health services, benefits access, communication tools to support a small business, online courses, or even access to real-time news.
Additionally, lesser known applications, or digital products with smaller budgets, may fall off the consumer radar completely and fail to reach enough users to sustain the business. Ultimately, the burning question becomes: if consumers are paying additional fees to Internet service providers just for accessing certain websites, would they also be willing to continue paying website owners for access to content and services on their sites as well?
The answer remains to be seen. In the interim, product developers must continue to make operational agility and consumer satisfaction their top priorities. Products will need to be more relevant, more engaging, and (most importantly) more user-friendly to overcome any pending hurdles on the horizon and keep consumers coming back for more.
Net Neutrality Consequences
Yes, many current service providers have vowed not to block or slow down any sites in the near term. However, it’s too soon to determine if this will be service providers’ long-term approach to consumers. As protocol evolves, shifts, and lapses, the overall impact of net neutrality, while perhaps not immediate, can have potentially significant and long-term repercussions.
Here’s what we do know about existing service providers: many of these companies are also our major cable providers. If we use the history of the cable industry as an indication of our digital future, prices will skyrocket and consumers will become frustrated. Eventually, a new nimble startup will emerge that will disrupt the entire industry and offer access to more content, tailored to each individual’s preferences, at a fraction of the cost. Until then, consumers may have to endure fewer choices and higher prices while the industry goes through the process of consolidation and ultimate disruption. Using the cable industry as our guide, we may be waiting for a very long time for that to happen.