Gelman: Everyone should be in favor of net neutrality

Max Gelman, Columnist

At its core, net neutrality is not a set of laws, government regulations or an overreach of power by a federal agency. Net neutrality is an idea — a principle — that Internet service providers, such as Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable, should treat all data equally on the Internet.

In other words, cable companies cannot slow Internet speeds for consumers for visiting certain websites. Now that the FCC has reclassified the Internet as a telecommunications Title II utility rather than an information service, overturning the court decision that struck down very loose net neutrality rules from 2010, the principle can be enforced effectively. There shouldn’t be any reason to dislike net neutrality: People should be treated equally and so should the way they communicate with each other.

The reason that net neutrality has made headlines recently is because cable companies wanted to introduce a new way to charge businesses and consumers for using the Internet over their networks. These new proposals would have created a tiered payment system where one can pay an extra fee for faster Internet speeds. However, one glaring problem with this plan is that cable companies would also be able to slow people down and ask for that extra fee for the speeds they would normally be getting. If you think that Comcast and Verizon would never act in such a manner, I say this: It has already happened.

Prior to Netflix’s deal with Comcast last February, Comcast leveraged negotiations by throttling internet speeds for Netflix’s video streaming services. Once Verizon successfully challenged existing weak FCC regulations in court, Netflix caved into Comcast’s demands and agreed to pay higher fees. A short while after that, it signed a similar deal with Verizon. Less than a month later, in order to compensate for these extra fees, Netflix raised its subscription fee for new users by a single dollar – from $7.99 to $8.99 per month.

You may not think much of paying an extra dollar per month, but remember in 2011 when Netflix tried splitting its streaming and DVD services, forcing consumers to pay for both at double the price or choose one? That decision almost destroyed the company, sending the company’s stock tumbling about 75 percent in just three months. This single-dollar price increase was not as catastrophic. However, when an October earnings report showed that Netflix did not add as many subscribers as expected, its stock fell more than 25 percent in just one day. Netflix knows that its customers don’t want to pay any more than what they’re used to, but the agreements with ISPs force the popular streaming service to charge consumers extra.

That brings us to the root of the problem – the cable companies themselves. The reason ISPs are able to get away with such ludicrous deals in the first place is that the industry is essentially an oligopoly, and they don’t care what their customers think. Cable companies simply don’t offer services in another cable company’s territory, all but eliminating competition and collectively raising prices over time for the same Internet speeds.

Don’t believe me? Talk to your parents and ask them how many different cable companies sell television and high-speed broadband where you live. Then ask them what their opinion of that cable company’s customer service department is. Most likely, your parents highly disapprove. Comcast’s TV service and Internet service were tied in a ranking as having the worst customer service among all American companies in 2014. Time Warner Cable came in third (TV) and sixth worst (Internet), while Verizon managed a sparkling seventh worst (Internet).

It’s not just the home Internet and television industries that are oligopolies, but wireless communications as well. The four major carriers in the U.S. — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — control almost 95 percent of the market share. Evidence of that oligopoly is much more clear, in that just five years ago an unlimited data plan cost only $30 per month for one line. Now with shared data plans on the rise, it costs $60 a month for an individual to get just one gigabyte of data. AT&T doesn’t even offer unlimited data plans anymore, but 44 percent of their customers are grandfathered into their old plans, showing how popular unlimited plans really are.

Because cable companies are modern versions of U.S. Steel and Standard Oil, maintaining net neutrality is incredibly important. Google has made strides to increase competition with the introduction of its Fiber service, providing speeds 100 times faster than most Americans’ Internet connection. T-Mobile also shook up the wireless industry by offering data rollover plans.

The most important thing to remember about net neutrality is that it shouldn’t be a political issue. Texas senator Ted Cruz, who accepted $47,000 in campaign donations from cable companies, would like to convince you that net neutrality is “Obamacare for the Internet,” when in reality that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Everybody should want the government to enforce net neutrality because, without this principle, the oligopolies win.

Max Gelman is a Medill freshman. He can be reached at maxgelman2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

Comments