There is nothing wrong with this blissful ignorance. Technology should fall into the background for most people. There are lots of things that work this way. Most people don't understand how water or electricity is produced and delivered to their homes. They turn on a switch and a light comes on. They turn a handle and water pours out of a faucet. The stuff just works (most of the time).
If you fall into this category you need to learn more about the Net Neutrality issue and how the internet we use every single day is about to be hijacked by the cable and wireless industry. It will impact you and unless you are an executive at a cable or wireless provider it's not going to be good.
Why Net Neutrality Is Important
Most people in the US get their broadband internet access from their cable provider. Cable providers in the US are usually in a monopoly position. A small minority of people get two service providers to choose from for true broadband access and some may have three or more.
In my case I have one service provider for broadband: my local cable company. Verizon FIOS isn't an option for me (Verizon FIOS only services 12% of the US today), DSL over copper is capped at 1.5MB/s for me and Google Fiber is still decades away from becoming an option. Sure satellite is possible but bandwidth is limited and the latency is extremely high, eliminating the ability to play interactive games and introducing unusable lag to video calls. Using a satellite connection to upload anything (like photos or videos) is also untenable.
I could set up a hotspot via AT&T or Verizon but we get almost no reception where I live. It's so bad I actually have to attach an AT&T cell phone repeater to my broadband to be able to use my mobile phones in my house. My broadband access is very much a common carrier for me.
I don't live in some remote rural area - I live in a suburb not far from Washington, DC.
Competition simply does not exist. That's one of the reasons US citizens pay significantly more than the rest of the world for internet access. Traditional capitalism fails quickly when companies do not have to compete for your business and in the case of broadband access to the internet this has already happened. Just take a look at the acquisitions taking place in the cable industry and it's becoming increasingly clear that a small handful of companies that have been granted an exclusive franchise to provide your broadband access can set the price point for usable broadband service to whatever they want.
But That's Not Enough
Simply providing access to broadband, where the amount of data you consume is either capped or metered is not enough for cable providers. Now they want to monetize what is delivered to you. With streaming video services like Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, etc. becoming popular the need for higher bandwidth is starting to hit these cable providers. Because a lot of that content is in direct competition with the cable TV content they provide this does not make them happy.
This is the heart of the Net Neutrality issue: when a broadband service provider passes packets of data to you they should not be able to discriminate against that data. Doing so means that the broadband provider suddenly gets to choose which packets get to you quickly and which ones take the scenic route.
This runs counter to the way the internet has been built and adopted in the US and most of the free world.
Regardless of the claims by FCC Commissioner Wheeler that anti-competitive price increases will not lead to the kind of discrimination that proponents of Net Neutrality have always feared will happen, the ability for small players in the market to fight discrimination will require expensive legal proceedings.
The bottom line is this: lobbyists for the cable and wireless companies have successfully influenced the FCC Commissioner (himself a former lobbyist and venture capitalist in the cable and wireless industry) to set up the rules for internet traffic to benefit... the cable and wireless industry.The first losers in this are the content providers; Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, etc. Fortunately for them, they have money. Of course they will pass the costs down to you so ultimately the consumers pay a higher fee.
The second losers are the smaller content providers. If your content (whether it's a web site, a data sharing service or music service) will be operating in the slow lane. If you feel the cable providers are discriminating against your traffic you can go before the FCC. Lawyer up! The barrier to entry for new startups in the internet space just got higher.
The final loser in all of this is the internet consumer. You'll pay more for things like Netflix and iTunes. In addition the pace of innovation will be reduced rather dramatically as startups simply can't raise the funds to get on the internet fast lane that is required to get decent service.
Why Isn't President Obama Doing Something About This?
President Obama campaigned in both of his elections in support of Net Neutrality. Earlier this year a petition was circulated that asked the White House to restore Net Neutrality. It was signed by over 105K people. The following is part of the official White House response to this position:
It was also encouraging to see Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, whom the President appointed to that post last year, reaffirm his commitment to a free and open Internet and pledge to use the authority granted by Congress to maintain a free and open Internet. The White House strongly supports the FCC and Chairman Wheeler in this effort.
The petition asked that the President direct the FCC to reclassify Internet service providers as "common carriers" which, if upheld, would give the FCC a distinct set of regulatory tools to promote net neutrality. The FCC is an independent agency. Chairman Wheeler has publicly pledged to use the full authority granted by Congress to maintain a robust, free and open Internet -- a principle that this White House vigorously supports.If there was ever a time for the President of the United States to back up a campaign promise, this is it. If there was ever a time for the President of the United States to back up the statement of the White House just a few months ago, this is that time. Mr. President, it's time for you to provide some leadership and resolve this issue. Mr. Wheeler is your appointee.
So What Can You Do?
First off, take 2 minutes out of your day and email your congressman and both of your senators. Tell them that the FCC needs to reclassify broadband carriers as common carriers. Need help with that? Here's a link to the House site - simply enter your zip code and it will tell you who your congressman is and provide a link to contact them. As for your Senators, here's a link for them.
Next, sign the current petition demanding that Net Neutrality be reestablished. Your voice needs to be heard.
Finally, talk to people about it. Point them to this blog entry. Encourage them to review the facts. The lobbyists in Washington DC are counting on you being apathetic about issues like this.
It's time you did something about it.