We all know too well how bad our Internet is on campus. But our slow speeds and high tuition are also a metaphor to the Internet situation all over the United States, plagued with few competitors, high prices, and slow speeds compared to other high-GDP nations.This issue continues despite recent efforts by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to address to promote fair practices among America’s Internet Service Providers.
For the last few years, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Verizon and Comcast have been spotted slowing down access to certain websites, such as Netflix, frequented by their customers. It was Netflix’s belief that customers should be able to access whatever Internet content they want, regardless if it was Netflix, Facebook, or any other website. The ISPs disagreed, believing they had a right to create “fast lanes” that they could charge companies like Netflix if a large percentage of Internet users wanted to access Netflix’s servers. This ultimately exploded into social media as Internet users criticized ISPs and their interest to create Internet fast lanes, where their broadband usage would be scrutinized on top of being an already overpriced, underperforming service. (CNN, “Why you’ll hate the Internet fast lane”, 4.30.14)
Earlier this month, the FCC at last put this ongoing debate over fast lanes to rest, issuing new rules pertaining to how ISPs should treat the service they provide to customers. These new rules, collectively known as Title II, are a major precedent as they restrict an ISP’s ability to scrutinize content, or create Internet fast lanes. All Internet usage would be treated the same under Title II (Digital Trends, “FCC reclassifies broadband in Title II”, 3.17.15)
Title II was a victory for consumers, but what remains in its wake are still many problems with the way ISPs do business. While it is a big deal to keep away Internet fast lanes, what the FCC ended up ruling on in Title II is a mere fraction of what they could have done to improve millions of American’s Internet access.
For starters, one issue not addressed in Title II is something called unbundling, which is when ISPs are required to allow access to their fiber optic lines to potential competitors. This is a common practice with wireless companies, and is why we have more than a dozen different wireless companies to choose from, even if only four of them actually own the wireless towers. Unbundling would mean more options to choose from for Internet access, and more competition among those potential choices.
It may seem weird to force ISPs to let the competition use its own fiber, but this fiber was not funded exclusively by these companies. Since the 1990s, local, state and federal grants totaling billions of dollars have been awarded to fund fiber lines and give cities access to cheap Internet access. However, in the years since these grants, ISPs have done little to lower prices as Internet speeds increase. In fact, according to the BBC, an Internet user in New York will pay almost twice as much what a Londoner will pay for the same speed Internet Access. (“Why is broadband more expensive in the US?”, 10.28.13)
Meanwhile, other countries like the U.K. handle internet access a bit differently. For those who want broadband, you can buy it from a number of different companies, even though most of the fiber is owned by a company called British Telecommunications (BT). ISPs state the price for the Internet access you want, plus transparently the fee that BT charges for access to their network, known as a “line rental fee.” This in turn allows for healthy competition, transparency over the rate BT charges, and overall lower prices for customers. Unbundling would likely do the same in the U.S., as many communities have at most one or two choices for Internet access.
If the FCC tried to introduce unbundling in its Title II policy, it’s like that the policy would have failed, since the FCC vote to approve Title II was a close 3-2 rulininto g among its voting members. ISPs were already angry enough to put out anti-Title II advertising during the vote over fast lanes. If unbundling had been part of Title II, we would have seen an even more aggressive campaign from ISPs given how much it’d affect their revenue.
There are a few exceptions to this high-priced lifestyle in the U.S. Google is renowned for offering low-cost, high speed Internet access in select cities, such as Kansas City, Atlanta, and Salt Like City. However, like everyone else, Google Fiber still monitors your Internet access which it may use to improve its service, sell to Big Data clients, or a slew of other things. Since they offer such a low priced service and already do more business in big data and advertising compared to other ISPs, Google is more likely to sell your data than others in the broadband space. It also doesn’t help that Google is but a small player in a business dominated by companies like Comcast, Verizon, and Charter.
However, what we have after Title II is more or less the same problems. Companies like Netflix benefit from Title II and may keep their prices down, but overall our Internet prices and service availability will remain the same unless Congress were to try and pressure ISPs to lower prices or increase competition.
What makes this even more damning is that ISPs are so profitable they’ve grown into other businesses, such as Comcast’s purchase of NBC, or AT&T and Verizon’s expansion into wireless. These companies continue to profit from the fiber that we, to an extent, helped fund over the last decade. Title II doesn’t go far enough to address our needs, and in the coming years we’ll want not just our music and movies, but all our content–even television–to come over the Internet.
This all has to do with more than Title II or unbundling. ISPs are under minimal scrutiny in their practices to provide what is, for most Americans, an essential service. Vassar has realized our need for faster Internet, and with a new grant it’s finally planning to improve Internet speeds for students and faculty over the next few years. We can keep Vassar accountable through the VSA and other structures. Outside, in the real world, we need to keep Congress accountable, otherwise we’re going to continue paying even more for even less.