MONEY Net neutrality

Why Net Neutrality Isn’t Worth Celebrating

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler (C) holds hands with FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn (L) and Jessica Rosenworcel during an open hearing on Net Neutrality at the FCC headquarters February 26, 2015 in Washington, DC. Today the FCC will vote on Net Neutrality seeking to approve regulating Internet service like a public utility, prohibiting companies from paying for faster lanes on the Internet.
Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Net neutrality doesn't fix the most pressing problem with our internet service.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission officially approved net neutrality regulations intended to protect consumers and businesses from internet service providers.

The new rules, broadly outlined earlier this month by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, will restrict ISPs like Comcast and Time Warner from blocking or slowing down traffic to certain websites, or allowing certain companies to pay extra for better treatment.

These regulations are positive step, but those swept up by the hype might end up disappointed when the real thing finally arrives. That’s because net neutrality doesn’t seriously address anything cable companies are currently doing, nor will it help with the number one issue most people care about: the price and quality of their service.

What Net Neutrality Really Does

Let’s start with the restrictions against blocking or slowing down websites. It’s obviously good that cable companies will now be prevented from actively censoring content, but this isn’t something ISPs ever actually practiced.

“I think it’s funny that the three big rules are no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization,” Dan Rayburn, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan and owner of StreamingMedia.com, told MONEY. “That’s all great, but do we have a single instance of an ISP doing any of those things?”

That might sound surprising to those who’ve heard Netflix’s repeated complaints that various ISPs, particularly Comcast, were intentionally degrading its service unless the company paid a “toll.” Isn’t that exactly what net neutrality is meant to stop?

Well, sort of. What Netflix and Comcast are really fighting over is something called “interconnection” or “peering,” where sites with especially heavy traffic have to pay more for extra capacity. Comcast says Netflix should be charged for using additional resources, whereas Netflix thinks it’s being strong-armed into forking over more than it should.

The new net neutrality regulations give the FCC some oversight over these agreements to determine if they’re “just and reasonable,” but that standard is so vague as to make an already complicated issue difficult to enforce. In Chairman Wheeler’s proposal, broadband providers are allowed to pretty much do whatever they want as long as they defend their actions as “reasonable network management,” which, as The Verge points out, is “a term which the ISPs have already been using to justify congestion at interconnection points.”

What Net Neutrality Doesn’t Fix

The upshot of all this is very little will change for the average U.S. internet user in a post-net-neutrality world. That’s a bad thing, because America does have a very serious internet problem desperately in need of regulatory assistance: namely, the fact that our internet connections are slower and costlier than the rest of the developed world’s.

The solution to this problem is simple: more competition. FCC data from 2013 shows 55% of American households have no choice in their broadband provider, and the agency has said Comcast will be the only broadband provider for nearly two-thirds of consumers if the company is allowed to merge with Time Warner Cable. It’s not hard to see why cable companies don’t have to compete very hard for your business.

Competition is scarce because it’s prohibitively expensive for a new company to build its own fiber network. The FCC could have fixed this problem by requiring “last-mile unbundling,” a policy that would force major broadband providers to lease their own networks to competing ISPs, when it reclassified broadband under Title II of the Communications Act. However, Chairman Wheeler explicitly ruled unbundling out of any net neutrality regulation.

This means the average internet user is going to be paying more for subpar internet for the foreseeable future. The Obama administration is planning to address this by encouraging cities to develop their own broadband networks, which, if effective, should create more competition and faster internet service. But such a solution is far away and will likely face significant legal hurdles.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying net neutrality is actively bad. We’re better off in a world with these kinds of restrictions. That said, the new rules should be seen as little more than a preventive measure for abuses that have largely yet to occur. For more meaningful reform, Americans should throw their support behind other policies that will break broadband monopolies and actually improve their connections. The fight for a better internet isn’t over. It’s barely begun.

A previous version of this article said a Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger would increase the number of consumers with no choice in broadband providers to two-thirds of Americans. The FCC says a merger would indeed result in two-thirds of U.S. households having only one broadband provider, but this is not likely to be an increase.

TIME technology

Grumpy Cat Grounded By Blizzard

"Grumpy Guide To Life: Observations From Grumpy Cat" Book Event At Indigo
George Pimentel—WireImage Grumpy Cat attends the "Grumpy Guide To Life: Observations From Grumpy Cat" Book Event on Aug. 9, 2014 in Toronto.

A mischievous plan by net neutrality advocates to hire an airplane to tow a banner-sized image of Grumpy Cat past Comcast’s corporate headquarters in Philadelphia on Thursday morning has been thwarted by a snowstorm.

The fly-by was originally timed to happen just after the Federal Communications Commission votes on rules safeguarding net neutrality.

The banner would have featured Grumpy Cat, whose look of withering contempt has become a popular meme for Internet lovers, next to the words: “Comcast: Don’t Mess With the Internet. Public wins. Team Cable loses. #SorryNotSorry.”

The three net neutrality advocacy groups behind the hijinks—Fight for the Future, Demand Progress and Free Press—perhaps chose the plane’s intended flight path to thumb their noses at Comcast, the nation’s largest broadband Internet provider, which has spent millions this year attempting to stop the FCC from passing the version of net neutrality rules it is considering today.

The Flight of the Grumpy Cat has been tentatively rescheduled for tomorrow.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: The Net Neutrality Vote

The FCC will vote on Net Neutrality legislation Thursday. (We already know what Hillary Clinton thinks about it.)

Watch the latest #KnowRightNow to find out what you should know.

MONEY The Economy

Internet Activists Near Win in Fight for Net Neutrality

Republicans appear to be ceding the fight against net neutrality for now, but the FCC’s plan still faces stiff opposition.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 19

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Are rising tensions between nuclear powers and an increased risk of rogue actors getting weapons spurring a new nuclear age?

By Rod Lyons in RealClearDefense

2. Psychological barriers — not science — are holding back progress on treating wastewater, improving crop yields and more.

By Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker

3. Massive computing power and better tools are making it harder to hide submarines. Are they becoming obsolete?

By Harry J. Kazianis in the National Interest

4. It’s too soon to celebrate a win in the Net Neutrality battle.

By Blair Levin in Re/code

5. Mumbling isn’t lazy speech. It’s data compression.

By Julie Sedivy in Nautilus

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Internet

AT&T Just Showed Us the Only Way We’ll Get Better Internet Service

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artpartner—Getty Images

Competition is the key to faster, better internet.

Internet service in the United States is just plain bad. That’s a fact. Compared to consumers in most other industrialized countries, Americans pay more money for slower access. The question then is how to do we make our internet better, and on Monday, AT&T gave us an answer: more competition.

The internet provider announced that it would match Google Fiber’s hyper-high-speed internet service in Kansas City. Under AT&T’s newly announced plan, users can get up to one gigabit per second for $70 a month, and that same speed plus cable TV for $120. That’s the same price Google offers for equivalent service, and a significant speed boost over what was previously available to local AT&T customers.

The move confirms what many analysts have long said about internet service. Namely, that when it comes to giving consumers what they really care about—how well their favorite sites perform—the only sure fix is to make companies fight over your business. In Kansas City, AT&T may have been able to provide better service, but it saw no reason to make the effort until another company’s offering threatened to siphon away paying customers.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, most of the country still lacks a competitive broadband market. Google Fiber has improved service in markets where it appears, but Fiber covers just three cities, with four more listed as “upcoming.” FCC data from 2013 shows 55% of American households have no choice in their broadband provider, and the agency has said Comcast will be the only broadband provider for nearly two-thirds of consumers if the company is allowed to merge with Time Warner Cable.

The Obama administration has taken steps to improve broadband competition, but the results are mixed. The president recently announced programs aimed at encouraging cities to develop their own broadband infrastructure and provide a sort of public option for the internet. This initiative, if embraced by local governments, has the potential to significantly improve competition and lower broadband prices.

However, another administration-led initiative, new “net neutrality” rules for broadband providers, represents a missed opportunity to immediately improve broadband competition in one fell swoop.

The proposed regulations, announced by Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, would reclassify broadband to regulate it more like a utility and restrict internet service providers from artificially degrading access to certain sites. But in reclassifying broadband, the FCC declined to force existing broadband companies lease their infrastructure to competing providers. This requirement, known as “last-mile unbundling,” has been widely used outside the U.S. to lower the barrier to entry for new broadband providers and create a more competitive market.

In rejecting an unbundling rule, the FCC has essentially left the task of expanding available broadband options to municipal networks and the very few private companies large enough to take on Big Cable.

For the average internet user, this means two things. If you live in a Google Fiber city, your service will continue to get better as broadband providers fight for your business. Conversely, if you don’t have Google Fiber in your area and your city won’t invest in its own high speed network, don’t expect your internet service provider to make any massive upgrades anytime soon.

A previous version of this article said a Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger would increase the number of consumers with no choice in broadband providers to two-thirds of Americans. The FCC says a merger would indeed result in two-thirds of U.S. households having only one broadband provider, but this is not likely to be an increase.

MONEY Net neutrality

Viewpoint: Here’s What’s Wrong With Today’s Net Neutrality Proposal

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Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

The new rules will ensure a level playing field for internet companies, and that's good—but they don't address the real problem for most Americans.

On Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler gave a broad outline of his forthcoming net neutrality proposal.

The news is mostly good. Wheeler says his proposal will reclassify broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act, giving the FCC the legal authority to prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing down services they don’t like or letting certain companies pay extra for priority treatment.

That will ensure a level playing field for internet companies, and that’s good—but for most Americans, the new rules really won’t affect their internet experience at all.

The reason is that overt content discrimination by broadband providers is very rare and possibly non-existent. Disputes over throttling do occur, such as when Netflix accuses companies like Comcast of purposefully slowing down its service. But these conflicts involve something called “interconnection” or “peering,” a necessary practice whereby sites like Netflix and Youtube, which use a disproportionate share of a provider’s resources, pay for extra capacity.

The FCC has promised to give these agreements closer scrutiny to determine if they’re “just and reasonable,” but it’s unclear what that standard means or how regulators would decide what’s fair and what isn’t. As a result, Dan Rayburn, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan and owner of StreamingMedia.com, doesn’t see the new rules making a real impact on how broadband providers do business.

“I think it’s funny that the three big rules are no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization,” says Rayburn. “That’s all great, but do we have a single instance of an ISP doing any of those things?”

The real problem

In fact, while net neutrality has become a pet issue of the technorati in recent years, it won’t solve the one thing that plagues most Americans: lousy service. Compared to their counterparts in other industrialized countries, U.S. internet users pay far more for far slower internet speed.

Why has America fallen behind? The answer is a simple lack of competition: FCC data from 2013 shows 55% of American households have no choice in their broadband provider, and the agency has said Comcast will be the only broadband provider for nearly two-thirds of consumers if the company’s merger with Time Warner Cable is approved. When consumers have no choice, ISPs have little incentive to invest in better service.

In reclassifying broadband, the FCC could have created a much more competitive environment by mandating something called “last-mile unbundling.” The reason the U.S. has virtually no broadband competition is because any aspiring provider would need to build it’s own immensely expensive fiber network. Last-mile unbundling would force existing service providers to lease their infrastructure to competing companies, removing this roadblock and opening the competition floodgates.

Unfortunately, chairman Wheeler’s statement explicitly states “there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling,” so many Americans will still have virtually no choice of service providers. In that regard, this announcement just affirms the sad status quo.

The silver lining

Despite Wheeler’s decision, President Obama is clearly aware competition is an issue. His plan to encourage municipalities to start their own public broadband providers could give consumers real choice, and motivate major ISPs to better serve their customers or risk losing them. There’s even evidence municipal internet leaves users with better service than last-mile unbundling can provide.

But while Obama’s municipal internet plan is great in theory, it will take a long time for cities to create their own ISPs, and it’s unclear whether the FCC has the authority to remove legal hurdles that bar many areas from creating an internet public option.

In the end, it boils down to the fact that Chairman Wheeler had the power to enable more broadband competition in the near-term with the stroke of a pen, and he chose not to do so. As a result, his net neutrality rules can hardly be considered a true win for internet users.

A previous version of this article said a Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger would increase the number of consumers with no choice in broadband providers to two-thirds of Americans. The FCC says a merger would indeed result in two-thirds of U.S. households having only one broadband provider, but this is not likely to be an increase.

TIME policy

These Two Charts Show Why Net Neutrality Is Meaningless Without Mobile

US-POLITICS-FCC-WHEELER
Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

We're using mobile devices way more than desktops these days

The head of the Federal Communications Commission confirmed reports Wednesday that he’s seeking to regulate Internet service like a utility.

That’s a big deal on its own, as it would give the agency new authority to stop Internet Service Providers like Comcast or Time Warner Cable from blocking or slowing down Internet content they don’t like. The move would thus protect “net neutrality,” or the idea that all Internet content should be treated as equal in terms of speed.

But buried within FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s Wired op-ed is a crucial nugget: He wants this change to apply not just to the Internet, but to mobile data services as well.

That would be a massive change for wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon, which have never been subject to net neutrality rules. But if Wheeler’s broadband reform plan is to be at all meaningful, it must apply to mobile Internet services as well.

Why? Just look at this August 2014 chart from Internet analytics firm comScore, which shows how we’re spending most of our screen time:

comScore

It’s no contest: Time spent on mobile devices is handily trumping time on desktop. There is a caveat here: Just because we’re using a mobile device doesn’t necessarily mean we’re using mobile data; we could be connected to a Wi-Fi network. But according to wireless industry trade group CTIA, U.S. mobile data usage has skyrocketed since 2009, going from 35 billion megabytes in 2009 to 3.2 trillion by 2013:

annual-survey-usage-2013

That’s why it’s so important for Wheeler that his broadband reforms apply to mobile: If they didn’t, they wouldn’t affect a major chunk of today’s Internet use.

TIME policy

Websites Plan ‘Internet Countdown’ to Defend Net Neutrality

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Karen Bleier—AFP/Getty Images Protesters hold a rally to support "net neutrality" on May 15, 2014 at the FCC in Washington, DC.

FCC will vote on new net neutrality rules Feb. 26

The organization behind a widespread online protest last fall over net neutrality is trying to stage another one as the Federal Communications Commission vote on new net neutrality rules draws near.

On Monday, Fight for the Future, an Internet advocacy group, began organizing an “Internet Countdown” to tick down the hours until Feb. 26, when the FCC is scheduled to vote on net neutrality, the principle that all data should be treated equally online. Internet advocates worry that the FCC may enshrine within its new rules the right for Internet service providers to charge a premium for “fast lanes” that would allow some websites to load more quickly than others. Internet advocates argue that boosting sites for money would stifle innovation, as start-ups would load more slowly than established brands.

Fight for the Future is pushing for a reclassification of broadband companies such as Comcast and Verizon as telecommunications services, which would let the FCC force those businesses to adhere to the tenets of net neutrality. The organization is trying to convince popular websites to embed its countdown timer on their websites to raise awareness about the upcoming FCC vote.

Fight for the Future has had success with this tactic in the past. A planned “Internet Slowdown” in September, in which websites either throttled their own traffic or posted an image of the “spinning wheel of death” to symbolizing throttling, was adopted by big online names such as Mozilla, Reddit and Foursquare. So far, the new Internet Countdown doesn’t seem quite as widespread, with the liberal blog The Daily Kos being the biggest organization currently participating. Fight for the Future and other organizers say they will announce other participants as they come on board.

Even as the FCC vote draws near, the Republican-led Congress is mulling legislation that might protect net neutrality while also removing the FCC from enforcement.

TIME Television

How the ‘John Oliver Effect’ Is Having a Real-Life Impact

John Oliver
HBO

His show has crashed websites, boosted donations and inspired legislation

Comedians mock our cultural and political institutions on TV all the time. But it’s not every day that a comic’s jokes crash a government website or directly inspire legislators to push for new laws.

John Oliver, host of HBO comedy news program Last Week Tonight, is quickly building up that level of cultural cachet. While his forebears and former colleagues Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart spend as much time lampooning the news media covering world events as they do analyzing events themselves, Oliver’s show stands out for its investigations into topics as varied as the militarization of the police state, Net neutrality and Argentina’s debt crisis.

MORE Feds Limit Law That Lets Cops Seize Your Stuff

Now Oliver’s approach has been cited as an inspiration for local government transparency. Just last week a Washington State legislator proposed a new bill that would let citizens comment on new legislation using videos submitted online. The state senator backing the new bill credited Oliver’s ability to turn boring topics into viral phenomena through online video as motivation for the new initiative.

It’s not the first time the show has caused real-world ripples. Here are other examples of times when the so-called “John Oliver effect” had an actual impact on the world:

Crashing the FCC Over Net Neutrality

One of Oliver’s most popular segments was an in-depth look at changing Net-neutrality laws last summer. Oliver took cable and phone companies to task, accusing them of wanting to create Internet “fast lanes” that would show preference to certain types of Internet traffic above others and undermine the traditional tenets of a free and open Internet. Oliver implored his fans to write to the Federal Communication Commission to voice their displeasure with potential changes to Net neutrality. The government agency received so many comments that its servers crashed. Internal emails later revealed that FCC officials were watching — and laughing at — Oliver’s takedown when it aired.

Giving Back to Female Engineers

During a segment railing against the Miss America pageant, Oliver dug into the organization’s tax filings to challenge the claim that it doles out $45 million in scholarship dollars each year. Though he determined that the Miss America Organization is the largest provider of scholarships for women in the world, he directed viewers to donate to other groups he deemed more worthy instead, like the Society of Women Engineers. Lo and behold, the engineering organization racked up $25,000 in donations in two days following the segment, or about 15% of its typical annual donations from individuals. The group credited the huge spike to the “John Oliver bounce.”

Raising Awareness of Civil Forfeiture Laws

Following up on a lengthy investigation by the Washington Post, Oliver spent an episode explaining a law that allows police to confiscate cash and property from people who have not been charged with a crime. The practice is known as civil forfeiture, and Oliver took the policy to its absurdist conclusion with a mock Law and Order episode in which Jeff Goldblum tries to interrogate inanimate objects. After the increased exposure given to the issue by the Post and Oliver, Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would enact major limitations on the law.

Read next: Larry Wilmore’s First Nightly Show: The Underdog as Top Dog

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