For those who aren’t as familiar with the topic of net neutrality as us hardcore techies, I’m going take a minute to summarize (in Layman’s terms) what it is, and why you should care about it. If you’re reading this post, you’re probably one of the millions of people in the world who access some kind of multimedia via the internet. If you subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Directv Now, or any other streaming subscription service, you fall into the category of people I’m addressing and should make sure to read this article in its entirety.
If you have one of the subscription streaming services mentioned above, you probably enjoy access to thousands of music and movie titles via an internet connection that’s provided by a cable or phone operator, and until now, that hasn’t been a problem. Since the inception of streaming services, these companies that have been happily providing internet connections to your homes while adhering to a simple principle called Net Neutrality.
The principle goes something like this, as long as you are paying for the broadband service they’ve been providing, whatever you decide to download via that connection is up to you, and the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) won’t interfere with it. But more recently, the content consumers are streaming has inhibited the ability of those same companies to monetize their content, so now they’re lobbying the FCC to remove the rules that formalized the Net Neutrality principles in writing, enabling them to charge more for content coming through their pipelines that originates from competing services.
History Repeats Itself
You’ve probably been hearing a lot of techies trying to convince consumers that net neutrality needs to stay in place, and taken at face value, that argument would appear to be correct. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that the abolishment of Net Neutrality could be the best thing for those of us who choose to access our favorite media via the internet. Let me explain.
Due to the fact it’s much easier to change services and equipment between wireless carriers than it is switch between ISPs, the wireless industry has always moved faster than the “wired” industry, and it’s generally pretty safe to look toward them for indications of how strategy changes will affect markets. It’s a bit of a canary in a coal mine situation, which I’ll sure the wireless industry would prefer wasn’t the case, but never the less, here we are.
It wasn’t that long ago that conversations with wireless executives about unlimited data plans resulted in executives stating, with 100% confidence, they would never have to offer unlimited data plans to their customers. Less than five years later things have changed, with wireless agreements including unlimited talk, text, and data, in addition to offering consumers the choice between Netflix, Hulu, and HBO. And now, depending on with whom you sign on the dotted line, a whole range of extras are available because of the addition of a new point of competition.
Unlike with ISPs, wireless providers compete head-to-head in almost every region, and the result of “true competition” has benefited customer across the nation, as the average cost of wireless bills has lowered when compared to 5 years ago. The removal of net neutrality on the wired side of the business would create a point of competition between ISPs similarly to how unlimited data plans affected the wireless industry. This assertion isn’t made without merit, as I remember the days before unlimited wireless plans were everywhere, and cell phone service providers were picking and choosing which particular content to include as a part of “data free” streaming. Can you see the similarity?
The 4K Factor
The availability of Ultra High Definition (UHD or 4K) content will probably be the tipping point for all of this due to the amount of internet bandwidth it requires and the lack of ability for traditional cable providers to offer it. If imposed caps and limitations on streaming content to our homes remain in place (there’s already a 1TB cap), consumers with 4K HDTVs and streaming source content to match will quickly start looking for ISPs that aren’t tacking on extra charges for owning the latest equipment and wanting to take full advantage of its capabilities.
The delivery of 4K content has become a more significant point of emphasis now that HDTV manufacturers have been ushering retailers towards selling UHD televisions in higher proportions than 1080p sets, and the transmission of these signal puts an enormous amount of stress on an aging internet infrastructure that streaming providers like Netflix aren’t responsible for maintaining. We can argue about the fairness of this arrangement later, but for now, we’ve reached the core of the Net Neutrality dilemma.
As the amount of data used to deliver 4K content to homes increases, inevitably, consumers will realize their home internet service plans more closely resemble the restrictive wireless data plans of the past than the newer unlimited data plans of the future. This dilemma will force the cable industry to choose which strategy to pursue in the same manner as the aforementioned wireless carriers.
On the one hand, cable and internet providers could leave home internet services and Net Neutrality as it stands, collecting overages whenever customers surpass their streaming limit, hoping they can hold on long enough to figure out their own content system.
On the other hand, they fight to abolish Net Neutrality, unleashing an immediate flurry of competition that will undoubtedly lead down a rabbit hole to including everything but the kitchen sink to maintain video subscribers. So what can they do?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and time will tell if any of us had the right answers.