Welp, there you have it. In a three-to-two vote, the FCC has voted in favor of a fast lane, which will allow companies to pay for direct connections to Internet users. But the vote also includes rules that would make it illegal for Internet service providers to block or intentionally slow down certain websites.
The good news is that this isn’t the final say. The next phase of the journey will involve a four-month public comment period, after which the commissioners may redraft the rules to take public opinion into account and vote again.
“There has been a great deal of talk about how our following the court’s instruction to use a ‘commercially reasonable’ test could result in a so-called ‘fast lane’ and Internet ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in an address to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association last month. “This misses the point that any new rule will assure an open pathway that is sufficiently robust to enable consumers to access the content, services and applications they demand and innovators and edge providers the ability to offer new products and services.”
But will the creation of a fast lane necessarily result in the creation of a slow lane? BTIG Richard Greenfield argues that it doesn’t, and he uses the TWCTV app as an example:
“What is happening is that 6 Mhz channels that historically were used for analog video are being repurposed in an increasingly all-digital environment, freeing up capacity for other uses (including Internet access, dedicated IP services, etc). The TWCTV content flows from Time Warner Cable’s digital center in Denver directly to households across their footprint on Time Warner Cable’s proprietary backbone, the apps’ content NEVER touches the open Internet (no peering, no interconnections). The TWCTV app feels like you are using the Internet (has the look and feel of any other video app) on your iOS, Android, Roku or Samsung smart TV. As a managed service the TWCTV content can be delivered more reliably and in higher quality without impairing the Internet in any way.”
While it may be true that ISPs simply have more capacity to work with, that doesn’t mean they won’t attempt to slow down other websites to strongarm them into paying for a fast lane.
Wheeler has promised to come down hard on ISPs caught intentionally slowing down Internet speeds for non-priority websites. But what does that really mean? Netflix accused Comcast of artificially slowing down its video streaming speeds to force Netflix and other video companies (which are big bandwidth hogs) to pay for better performance. But Comcast didn’t have to go out of its way to do this—all it had to do was let its transit connections get clogged up through a simple lack of maintenance.
And therein lies the problem. If Comcast and other ISPs are going to see more revenue from double-dipping via “fast lanes,” what incentive will they have to keep the slow lanes running smoothly? Can the FCC force ISPs to invest their resources in maintaining those slow lanes?
What we can be sure of is higher prices for consumers. As larger media companies are forced to pay for fast lanes to ensure better streaming quality, those costs will likely be passed onto the consumer. Netflix has already announced a plan to raise U.S. subscription prices by one dollar, which may or may not be related to the fact that it is now paying Comcast for better quality—and will likely have to pay other ISPs in the near future as well.
Image source: NPR.org