Net Neutrality Up for Debate

Author: Clare Curley Date: July 01, 2014

The FCC’s proposal to protect an open Internet could affect your small business.

On May 15, the Federal Communications Commission proposed to protect the openness of the Internet and keep broadband providers from trying to limit that openness through a new set of rules. Within a few weeks, the FCC’s website was deluged with over 45,000 comments from business leaders and regular citizens alike. Despite the proposal’s lack of detail, commenters were quick to question how such rules will impact society as a whole—a sign of how intensely the public is following the debate.

The announcement kicked off a four-month exploratory process, which aims to determine the best ways to ensure net neutrality, or equal access to online content and applications for all Internet users.

Currently, consumers have access to the same Internet services, although cable and DSL broadband speeds and costs vary. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler argues that, as the Internet evolves, new rules will be necessary because none exist today. Yet the issue has become a lightning rod for discussion in technology and business circles that want to ensure that big companies won’t have added influence if changes are adopted.

What Net Neutrality Could Mean for Small Businesses

The commission proposes to provide consumers and content providers like Amazon and Google with disclosures on service issues, while also reviving a “no-blocking” rule to ensure fast access for customers.

Yet two hot spots are sparking the most debate: 

1. Two-Tiered System. The announcement was followed by speculation about the potential for paid prioritization of services that would leave smaller companies and regular consumers with inferior service. One way this could happen is via exclusive “peering arrangements,” agreements between Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon, and the corporations that provide the routers, cable and other physical connections that support Internet functionality. If that happens, “small business owners have justifiable concerns over some higher tax or fee to get even higher speed Internet access via the new higher speed Internet connections,” says technology and small business writer Ramon Ray.

However, others note that pay structures aren’t completely fair under the current system. A video streaming startup that eats up more Internet traffic, for example, doesn’t necessarily pay more than a small business with fewer online needs. In his blog, Wheeler insists that “behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the Internet will not be permitted.”

2. Reclassification. The FCC is also considering whether to subject Internet service providers to common carrier rules under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 or to certain rules under the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Wheeler has explained this is simply to subject Internet providers to the same anti-discriminatory rules as utility companies. “I don’t think the government wants to regulate [the Internet] heavily like a phone company,” says Ray.

What Small Business Owners Can Do

Business owners have until July 15 to submit comments (look for Proceeding 14-28), after which point the public will have another two months to reply to comments. New rules will likely be implemented before the end of the year, says Wheeler.

The average brick and mortar retailer may not notice any changes. But if you’re a videographer pumping hundreds of videos out to clients, or simply trying to move faster online, Ray advises you to research and understand the issues and voice your concerns to your local representatives.

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