So far, the debate over net neutrality has centered mostly on whether broadband providers could manipulate the speed of certain traffic on their networks, cutting deals with content partners to serve up their web pages faster than others. It’s easy to imagine an unwitting web surfer accessing some sites quickly and others slowly, and never really figuring out why.
But now, a different kind of non-neutral Internet is emerging on wireless networks, as mobile companies offer low-cost plans that only give users access to certain popular apps like FacebookFB+0.27%. Such plans, known as “zero rating,” don’t comport with net neutrality, the principle that all traffic should be treated equally. And in these cases there is transparency – the user is fully aware of what’s going on because it’s a plan he or she has chosen.
The question is whether such plans could someday find their way to wired networks, and how they would fit into the Federal Communications Commission’s view of what Chairman Tom Wheeler calls an “open Internet.” Wheeler indicated in recent weeks that he is seriously considering expanding his proposed rules to cover wireless networks, and specifically questioned at a recent FCC roundtable how the wireless carriers differ from their wired broadband counterparts.
If the FCC decides to allow zero-rating plans, it’s possible a wired broadband provider might copy the wireless model, giving users access to limited applications for a reduced fee, versus the higher monthly cost of high-speed access. For example, a customer could theoretically to pay a lower monthly fee to connect only their television or gaming console to the Internet, for the purposes of streaming video or gaming and nothing else.
Similarly, regulators could create plans that that allow low-income consumers to access educational or health resources online without paying for a home broadband connection. It wouldn’t be a neutral net, but for these consumers it might be better than nothing.
Examples like these muddy the choice for the FCC. They suggest the agency might have to balance a purely neutral net that could exclude a segment of the population against a non-neutral Internet that puts more people online, albeit on a limited basis.
Net-neutrality advocates have pushed for a flat ban on allowing the service providers to prioritize any kind of content. Their argument is that these limited plans privilege some apps at the expense of the rest, and give wireless carriers the ability to decide what parts of the Internet low-income users can access. If the Facebooks of the world have an in with the carriers, there is no way the future Facebooks of the world could gain a foothold in the market. Innovation, they say, would be stifled.
People familiar with the FCC’s thinking say the agency still hasn’t made up its mind on whether to ban the zero-rating plans, but regulators in other countries where they are common have moved to do so.
Prof. Pedro Henrique Soares Ramos of the São Paulo Law School of Fundação Getulio Varga argued in a March academic paper that zero-rating plans in developing countries can result in two Internets, one for those that can pay for the full range of online services and a second, smaller subset of apps that would be affordable to poorer people. The paper also lays out the dilemma facing regulators who must decide whether or not to ban the plans, as some governments have contemplated.
As they stand, the FCC’s proposed broadband rules would have the agency decide these issues on a case-by-case basis. The FCC would likely start with a presumption against any special deals, unless carriers can prove they benefit consumers directly.
Wheeler’s proposal would therefore let the FCC prevent the speeding up or slowing down of specific websites on most broadband connections, while leaving the door open for specialized services that appeal to consumers that lack home broadband connections. That’s not good enough for most net neutrality advocates, but it might prove appealing to the 30% of U.S. households without high-speed Internet access, which are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.