Recent reports out of the FCC say that it will allow ISPs to create and sell “fast lanes” of Internet access to the companies with sufficiently deep pockets to afford them. While some people argue over whether this violates network neutrality principles or not, the more important point is that most communities have no control over how the networks on which they depend are operated.
The big ISPs, like Comcast and AT&T, are focused on maximizing revenue for their shareholders. It is why they exist. So they will want to make the fast lanes as appealing as possible, which in turn means making providers like Netflix unable to deliver a high quality product without paying special tolls to Comcast.
What does that mean for you? It means you should expect to see the big providers slow their already anemic pace of investing in higher capacity connections in favor of pushing content providers into the paid prioritization schemes. It also means that you may have to start paying more for Netflix or Hulu, where the additional money goes to the ISP you already overpay for comparatively lousy service.
A range of ISPs, from privately owned Sonic.Net in California to Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board right up to Google have demonstrated that they can deliver a “fast lane” to everyone. This fight over paid prioritization is nothing more than the big cable and telephone companies trying to increase their profits while minimizing needed investments in higher quality service to everyone.
Unless you live in an area with a community-owned network. Unlike the big providers with a fidiciary responsibility to distant shareholders, community owned networks are directly accountable to the community. Their mission is to maximize local benefits, not extracting as much wealth from households as possible. ISPs like Sonic also have much more reasonable policies but over time these privately owned ISPs are vulnerable to being bought by the big national providers.
Community owned networks are far less likely to engage in paid prioritization because it adds no value for subscribers in the community. In fact, the worse the big cable companies act in terms of ripping off subscribers, the more valuable community owned networks become by providing a better level of service.
Another example of this is monthly data caps – the big cable companies have been “experimenting” with them in several markets in the south but always in areas where the community has not built an alternative option. Community networks not only offer a much better option to the community, they change the behavior of incumbents who are accustomed to operated in non-competitive environments.
The final benefit of community owned networks is that if the federal regulators fall down on the job AND your community-owned networks engages in behavior that hurts subscribers, there is a democratic process for rectifying that, whether in elections for the city council or coop board.