Net Neutrality: Does it really matter?

13 Oct, 2017

What is Net Neutrality really? It is the Internet’s guiding principle that promotes the unhampered access to and equal treatment of data, no matter the type, purpose, use, or target. Specifically, Net Neutrality admonishes Internet Service Providers (ISPs) not to discriminate between browsing Facebook, which doesn’t use up too much data, and binge-watching Netflix, which gobbles up gigabytes. ISPs would normally throttle the consumer’s bandwidth in case of the latter, giving various reasons or excuses, mostly around keeping networks from getting congested and hogged by a single individual.

Naturally, there are pros and cons to this principle, but in Mzansi it takes on a more political and legal character. At the heart of the debate is the question of whether the sector regulator — currently the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) — even has the legal mandate to implement rules favouring or opposing Net Neutrality. Last year, ICASA made its position clear. Yes, it can and, yes, it will. It has classified Internet broadband access as a telecommunications service, which falls under its domain. Opponents of Net Neutrality, however, insist that imposing such regulations would be detrimental to the ISP business, which, in turn, would stifle innovation and investments to improve the state of Internet access in the country.

Content consumption is going to get pricier
The most immediate consequence of not implementing Net Neutrality is that service providers will remain free to charge extra depending on the source or purpose of data. They will also be able to charge both ends of the pipeline, both the end-user as well as the content provider. For seamless throttled streaming, you’ll have to pay extra and if you’re a streaming source who wants access to premium lines, you’ll have to cough up extra as well.

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This may be fair in a capitalist economy, where you pay extra for privileges (though Net Neutrality advocates would argue that such rights shouldn’t exist at all). However, problems arise when even the absence of privileges doesn’t truly level the playing field. The biggest case of this would be the rivalry between Netflix and Hulu; two video streaming services. While Netflix might be the household name in video streaming, it is quite small compared to some of its rivals. Hulu, for example, is partly owned by the ISP, Comcast. It’s safe to assume that Hulu will enjoy some preferential treatment with regards to bandwidth and won’t be charged extra, if at all, for premium lines. Netflix, on the other hand, won’t be so lucky, and any extra expenses incurred will eventually trickle down to consumers.

Video streaming won’t be the only casualty. There is a strong chance that services that rely on heavy, continuous use of Internet bandwidth, may raise their subscription fees should things reach that point. “That’s business”, some might argue, and while larger companies can afford life in the fast (and wide) lane, SMEs will have a much harder time competing in that space. Net Neutrality advocates point out how small Internet businesses could end up closing down simply because they won’t be able to reach potential customers or pay their way into the consumer’s consideration set. They are simply shuffled to the gutters by companies that afford a wider road, but then again, that’s how businesses have always lived and died.

Parties from both sides of the Net Neutrality divide unsurprisingly claim to have the consumer’s welfare at heart. Advocates claim that Net Neutrality protects consumers from greedy corporations who will exploit every legal remedy or loophole to squeeze out an extra Rand or two. Opponents, on the other hand, object that Net Neutrality goes against the consumer’s best interests as it prevents ISPs from taking risks and making investments to improve infrastructure and services, especially in underserved markets.

Like any complex but worthwhile debate, there are no clear-cut answers that both sides will be able to agree on amicably. In the end, it will be up to a mediator or a higher authority, in this case ICASA or the government, to settle the matter, and if the recently passed white paper does not get any approval, it might be time to reassess your budget for broadband and streaming subscriptions.