Mediacom—one of the top 20 internet service providers in the country—voiced its support in bringing back net neutrality last week, agreeing with millions of Americans who went into an uproar after the FCC overturned the regulations in December.
Tom Larsen—the vice president of Government & Public Relations at Mediacom—told Clay & Milk that Mediacom supported net neutrality in principle, but pointed out inconsistencies in its execution that allows the uneven playing field it was meant to prevent.
“The net isn’t neutral and it never has been,” Larson says. “We wish net neutrality was being done in a holistic approach. One national law that was passed by Congress, rather than decided by the FCC’s appointed board members. Congress says once and for all here are the rules: follow them.
“We have to change our policies every ten minutes… It’s confusing for customers and it’s not fun for our business.”
Net neutrality was largely a national issue before Iowa Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, introduced House File 2287—the Iowa Internet Neutrality Act—earlier this month. The bill died in committee, but Bennett believed simply introducing the concept to other lawmakers was an important accomplishment for the 2018 session.
“This session might be a good time to plug the involvement of millennials and Gen X people in the tech and startup communities with state and local government,” Bennett said. “There’s a certain population of us who understand what can happen to the internet when it’s not a free and open internet.”
What Actually Happens
While paid throttling and preference was illegal, unpaid preference has been ok, which Larsen believes most people aren’t aware of.
He says the biggest hosts on the web—Netflix, Google (which owns YouTube), Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon—all disproportionately benefited from Net Neutrality.
“I have no problem with the principles (of Net Neutrality),” Larsen says, “but one of them is kind of a fib.”
Under Net Neutrality, it is legal for ISPs to create faster connectivity to high-traffic sites so long as they don’t directly charge consumers for them.
To achieve those faster speeds, big sites (Netflix, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon) build server farms (data centers). A Microsoft server farm could support both Microsoft Office and Xbox Live, for example. These farms give the big sites greater control over their processing power capability.
For the rest of the web, all of the traffic is funneled to single locations, known as “Carrier Hotels” — essentially giant data centers shared by the rest of the sites on the Web. (The world’s largest is in Chicago; 1.1 million square feet.)
At these Hotels, websites rent server space where their data is stored.
Where the Advantage Lies
If Mediacom were to just ignore the server farms and go through the Carrier Hotels Mediacom customers would see a difference in load times. Mediacom’s rejection could get it all but blacklisted by the sites that have server farms.
In a public speed index provided by Netflix that ranks providers on their connectivity speeds, Mediacom ranked fifth.
The advantage the ‘Bigs’ have is a distinctly better user experience. They can upload more to their sites and have them load faster, making them preferred by more users.
“If you’re a startup in Iowa, how could you become Google if they have no priority?” Larson asks. “These are the same companies that come out way ahead of everybody else.”
Loopholes like this, as well as the loss of Net Neutrality, aren’t advantageous for competition in the marketplace.
Matthew Mitchell, a Drake University College of Business professor who used to work in telecommunications, says that, if America prides itself on a “startup culture,” this might not be a healthy direction.
“Startups are going to have to pay to access consumers,” he says.
Larsen says he’s ok with some companies having private highways—they have more traffic, they need more lanes—but he believes that Mediacom (and thus Mediacom’s customers) having to foot the bill for the Bigs’ advantage is absurd.
He’d rather see Net Neutrality preserved and expanded so that websites would have to foot the bill for the fibers, rather than having the ISPs cover that cost.
Larsen says that this “unpaid prioritization” forces ISPs to become middlemen and can be left looking like “the bad guy.”
What could happen next…
A deeper discussion around Net Neutrality centers around treating the internet as a public good or as a telecommunication service. The FCC continues to change its mind.
While Net Neutrality is repealed ISPs, can charge consumers for packages, similar to paying for specific television packages.
No ISPs have made significant changes thus far.
Mitchell doesn’t think consumers will see a change anytime soon — there’s too much uncertainty — but they should be wary.
“It’s hard to imagine this big change won’t affect them in some way,” Mitchell says. “People aren’t really sure how it will affect them.”
And they won’t be sure so long as the law isn’t set in stone or until ISPs start making commitments on one side or the other.
“It will be very difficult for consumers to perceive the differences that result from this change,” Mitchell says. “How many of us are able to understand our cable and cell phone bills as is?”
Adam Rogan is a contributor to Clay & Milk
Previous Net Neutrality coverage
Net Neutrality bill introduced in the Iowa House – Feb. 13, 2018
From the editor: We may need Congress for Net Neutrality – Dec. 11, 2017
Middle Bit: Startups are for Net Neutrality – Nov. 24, 2017
Net neutrality and the risk to the Midwest – May 7, 2017