It’s been a bad week for “net neutrality,” and more broadly, the future of the open web. Early this week, Comcast’s new pricing scheme ruffled some feathers when an internal memo to customer service representative was leaked, essentially outlining the rhetorical cushioning behind the company’s “data cap” initiative. And if you haven’t heard the term “data cap” yet, there’s reason for that: the telecomm PR machine is trying to terminate the phrase.
The memo, leaked on Reddit, coaches customer service representative as such:
Do say: “Fairness and providing a more flexible policy to our customers.”
Don’t say: “The program is about congestion management.” (It is not.)
Customers in trial areas will see their home broadband data capped at 300GB, with a $30+ surcharge to unlock unlimited data. Sound familiar? This is the same strategic move cellphone providers made several years ago, when services like iMessage and FaceTime made it near impossible for them to make money off messaging plans and traditional telephone services. “Data caps” don’t sound nice, and as Comcast is quick to point out, it’s not really a “cap” so much as data threshold you’d be very unwise to cross.
The interesting point in the Comcast memo is that it suggests this decision has nothing to do with network capacity—which is shocking. Network capacity, after all, was the reason Comcast had earlier argued regulators should allow them to set up “a fast lane” for streaming services like Netflix which account for the majority of network traffic. (When things didn’t go Comcast’s way, the company proceeded throttled all traffic to Netflix until the video streaming provider agreed to start paying rent to the telecomm giant).
“Network capacity,” evidently, was the catchall for Comcast when exercising monopoly power over consumers and web services. The trouble with telecomm’s “fast lane,” according to many advocates of an open web, is that a “fast lane” means there’s a slow lane, and with that, the low cost of doing business on the web is bound to be driven up by rent-seeking telecomm policies.
The inflammatory bit of this is that consumers are bearing these costs twofold, covering Comcast’s rent-seeking on the business end while getting hit with overage charges as consumers. The commodification of data threatens to stifle business and begin rolling back the clock on 20 years of gains in internet accessibility.
And then, there is T Mobile. The self-declared “uncarrier” announced today that it is zero-rating certain types of data, while also quietly hiking up rates on unlimited plans. “Zero-rating” means that specific types of streaming services (see really big tiles above) will no longer count toward data totals—which is unsurprising given the Comcast memo’s revelation that wireless providers are not nearly as burdened by streaming as we’ve been led to believe.
It’s not clear how much these changes will hurt consumers, but they will certainly benefit big businesses—those in the position to negotiate zero-rating deals with T Mobile. And again, the open web (which is already dominated by a select few big services) will be hurt by policies which do not treat all data equally. This is bad for smaller businesses and upstarts, and in the long run, threatens to stymie innovation in the digital sector.
Why I’m Still Optimistic
Is there a solution? Several consumer advocates are already saying Google Fiber, the search giant’s high-speed internet service, can’t come quickly enough. I’d argue that Google—a company with an embedded interest in an affordable, open web—is in a fantastic position to inject some competition into the monopolistic world of telecomm.
In the long run, rent-seeking in the digital space can only be stopped by alternative business models which do not directly attempt to monetize network infrastructure. That’s a lot to ask of the telecomm gods, but I do believe that net neutrality is worth enough to a couple key players that there will be more intervention if the cost of doing business online begins to keep companies and consumers offline.