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Reconciling the repeal of net neutrality

Dire predictions aside, Madison-area experts are cautiously optimistic that the internet will remain open and free with or without net neutrality.

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

December 14, 2017 was a bad day for net neutrality advocates.

On that day, the Trump administration Federal Communications Commission (FCC), on the recommendation of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, voted 3–2 to repeal net neutrality rules that were barely two and a half years old, but more than a decade in the making.

Since then, there has been little clarity on the future of net neutrality regulations in the United States. Almost immediately following the FCC vote, attorney generals from the states of Washington and New York announced their intention to sue the FCC over its decision. Congressional Democrats began their own work to reverse the FCC’s decision legislatively.

A number of states opted to pursue their own net neutrality rules. In Wisconsin, Democratic lawmakers introduced two bills — one that would bar the state from contracting with internet service providers that violate the former FCC rules, and another that would simply reinstate the former FCC rules, just at the state level.

Several large tech companies, in addition to at least 21 states, even filed lawsuits against the FCC.

The reaction from internet consumers — which at this stage is most of us — was just as swift and negative.

Which brings us to today, several months later, when despite all the Sturm und Drang, not much has changed, as least not yet. While consumers wait to see when the other shoe will drop, and just how big of an impact it will make, IB sought out local players to gauge their reactions on the repeal of net neutrality and what it might mean for their bottom lines, as well as for Madison-area internet users.

Much ado about something — maybe?

Outside of the boardrooms of the largest internet providers, one thing is clear: There hasn’t been much love for the decision to repeal net neutrality rules.

For local internet experts though, the hubbub amounts to little more than hot air. There’s reason to be concerned, sure, but also a note of caution about overreacting.

“In general, this has been brewing for years and what it comes down to is the internet providers — mostly the large carriers, the Comcasts and the AT&Ts — basically want us to live in a world where they control the internet,” says Bryan Chan, president and founder of SupraNet, a Madison-based internet service provider. “It helps to realize though that the internet is so robust and so universal and so entrepreneurial at this point that government really can’t do anything about it, and neither can these large carriers.”

“We are not making any specific changes to our operations in response to the repeal,” notes Garrett Peterson, principal/director of life sciences technology for Yahara Software, an interactive web solutions and custom software architecture firm in Madison. “However, we will be closely monitoring how the new regulatory environment plays out in the marketplace.”

The repeal of net neutrality is just one of many recent policy changes occurring at the federal level, the combined total of which continue to evolve the rules and regulations that apply to the tech sector, explains Peterson. “We strive to remain agile as new ‘normals’ are established and then adjust accordingly as the rules become more permanent and well defined.”

The concern many consumers have, according to Chan, is that following the repeal of net neutrality, internet service providers (ISPs) will no longer be obligated by law to treat all data on the internet the same, meaning they cannot discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication. Essentially, the worry is that now ISPs will be free to slow down internet speeds to certain content providers that are viewed as bandwidth hogs — primarily streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, among others — while also charging consumers more to access those providers at higher speeds.

Chan believes he’s in a unique position because he can see the issue from both sides as an internet provider and content-hosting provider.

“Basically not a whole lot has changed for SupraNet at this point,” Chan says. “What we’re doing now, or what we have been doing over the past three years, is creating peering arrangements with other providers in other places. Currently our network reaches down to Chicago to one of the world’s largest data centers, to Minneapolis, and to San Jose. We have peering arrangements with other internet providers in those markets and at those network meet-points. That helps us to reduce the cost of internet over time and it also helps us to mitigate anything that might happen with net neutrality.”

What Chan is getting at is that while a net neutrality repeal could give larger ISPs those malevolent powers, the streaming media providers know that and have already taken steps to mitigate it by moving their content closer to the people who actually use it.

“They do that through content peering and network meet-points that are set along the internet to mitigate the speed issue,” Chan explains. For example, when you use Netflix in Madison, more than likely you’re actually going to servers that are hosted at the Madison Internet eXchange Peering Point (MadIX) through the university.

“In the old days, you’d have to reach across the internet — literally — to get that content,” acknowledges Chan. “Steadily because of the influence of internet providers and speed issues, and actually them not being able to keep up with the demand of content providers like Netflix and Amazon, the servers have moved closer to those users and we have a broader diversity of servers out there that we can get to.”

So, if both ISPs and content providers are working to improve internet service, what’s really the problem?

“This started with Netflix and more broadband streaming,” says Chan. “Nobody could imagine 20-plus years ago that you would ever be watching the NCAA basketball tournament at your desktop over the internet. [The internet] was never really meant to do any of that stuff. The fact that it could is great, and it’s spawned all sorts of interesting ideas, companies, and startups around that idea of the internet of things. Whoever would have thought we’d be putting internet on our refrigerators and doorbells and things like that?”

Chan says where he’s most concerned is for people whose only internet or broadband comes from the major wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon. They can definitely slow things down and charge more money to make things faster if that’s your only option, he notes.

“A bigger threat to net neutrality is the lack of competition and the consolidation of internet providers,” notes Chan. “When that happens, consumers have fewer choices, and when you have that dynamic of a fewer number of carriers, then yeah, they can do whatever they want or intentionally slow things down.

“On the other hand, I can see where this has come up because as an internet provider, as there are more demands on bandwidth from various devices and especially streaming things, it forces us to make faster internet for our customers,” which costs money, Chan adds.


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