Net Neutrality and Wayne’s World

by Rick Johnson

Let’s do something radical and actually explain “net neutrality” in plain English. This is the fight to prevent telecom/cable providers (AT&T, Comcast,Verizon) from taking too much control over the cable lines that now deliver high speed internet access. Cities and municipalities grant companies the right to lay communication lines that provide cable television and internet services. Content providers such as Netflix and Amazon have built their empires from the advancement of faster internet speeds , or bandwidth. Ironically the broadband services provided by the telecom/cable providers have created a means to by-pass or even cancel cable services – we now call “cutting the cord”. If capitalism means we support competitive markets, then why would some try to remove regulations that support this American philosophy?

Since the cable lines are a service to the city or municipality, the telecom/cable providers have no recourse under net neutrality laws which state all Internet traffic should be treated equally. “Equally means the cable company must provide equal quality, equal fees, and equal access to all companies and people for broadband access. Under current net neutrality laws all of the services a telecom/cable company provide, are a “utility” to the city or municipality, not unlike the local gas company. Traditional land based telephones are a utility, or what is known a common carrier,  Title II (common carrier) of the Communications Act of 1934.

Prior to a city granting these exclusive rights to cable/telecom providers, there is a competitive bidding process whereby all kinds of sweet perks are offered to the community in order to win the bid.  One frequent perk to win a bid were the provisions to provide production equipment and television facilities for local produced community programming. This fueled the public access TV boom of the 1980’s.  A Saturday Night Live skit with Dana Carvey and Mike Meyers made fun of this public access programming taking place in the suburbs of Chicago.  A popular sketch making fun of public access tv was eventually spun off into a hit franchise called “Wayne’s World”.

Cablevision Studios based in Oak Park Illinois,  provided  studios, tv equipment, and classes for community programming as part of their agreement with the local municipalities.  Cablevision had a huge variety of public assess programming which obviously caught the eye of the Chicago bred Saturday Night Live writers.

Public access tv was nothing compared to the development of High-Definition Television (HD). The bandwidth being provided for HD, was now making it possible for internet content distributors to distribute video (YouTube) and movies (Netflix) to compete with the traditional cable providers.  These alternatives referred to as OTT, Over-The-Top, ride over the top of existing broadband cable lines by-passing the local cable provider for programming fees.

However, high speed broadband alone cannot be given all the credit for creating new alternatives to cable programming fees. Key advancements in powerful processors and data crunching algorithms which compressed video content would be required to fully leverage high speed internet. This data crunching is known as encoding or compression, which breaks up the digital content on the transmission end, and then puts it back together on the receiving end.

The entire process called streaming, would put such a strain on Comcast broadband speeds that Netflix agreed to pay Comcast an “incentive” to insure maximum bandwidth at all times.  Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO,  knew Comcast had been found guilty by the FCC of altering the quality of internet speeds against the laws of net neutrality, so he simply opted to play it safe. A controversial yet customer centric strategy.

Many fear removing net neutrality laws would allow the cable/telecom to alter speeds and thus make it more difficult to enjoy Netflix in full HD. In short, exploiting a public utility, broadband, and removing their obligation for fairness and price controls.

On the brighter side, wireless providers such as T Mobile have embraced higher bandwidth in 4G, with unlimited data promotions with these same companies such as Netflix. Customers can now use an unlimited amount of data when watching Netflix.  It’s a brilliant move as the heavy users will find out that unlimited data “quantity” does not mean unlimited data “quality”.  Since Wireless providers have the ability to dial down wireless broadband speeds when certain data limits are reached, users must pay more to insure unlimited best HD quality Netflix.

Under current net neutrality laws, home broadband providers are NOT allowed to dial down speeds except for the routine maintenance of data flow. So it makes sense that the removal of these laws could possibly allow home broadband providers to “dial down” in an attempt squeeze more money out of us.  The cable/telecom providers claim this is not the case, but only want a level playing field against streaming competition.

So how have the cable/telecom providers responded to all the cord cutting?

Charter Communications purchased Time Warner Cable/Brighthouse

Comcast purchased NBC/Universal,

and AT&T purchased DirecTV.

The chairman of the FCC Ajit Pai, former counsel of Verizon, rolled back net neutrality laws in 2017 fulfilling the Republican agenda. While this is a win for Republicans, it’s important to understand your local munipality has the last word. Similar to laws regulating drugs like marijuana the state is in charge, despite FCC regulations. While the Dems are leading a Hail Mary to restore these laws, we can all do our part to let our city councils know our grievances. Also its clear that cutting the cord lowers the city tax revenue, and no city council member wants that.