By Karen Axelton
You may have heard the term “net neutrality” but do you know what it really means? Net neutrality regulations put in place by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) require all Internet companies (cable companies) to treat all Internet users equally. Although they can charge different prices based on your speed (less for DSL, more for broadband), they can’t charge different prices to different customers (say, charging Amazon less to access the Net than they charge Joe’s Bookstore).
Net neutrality has been challenged many times since the Internet became essential to business, but it’s currently facing yet another challenge in Congress. In fact, a bill that would end net neutrality just passed the House—and if you’re not sure what that would mean (or if it would matter) to your business, check out Rhonda Abrams’ assessment in USA Today.
Until now, Abrams argues, the Internet has been a huge leveler, enabling small startups like Groupon to compete with big companies. “Without net neutrality, telecommunication and cable companies can tilt the playing field. And it won’t be in small businesses and start-ups favor,” she writes.
The end of net neutrality would lead to “tiered” Internet service, which Abrams likens to coach, business and first class on planes. Unless you were willing (and could afford) to pay more for premium service, your business would be shunted to coach.
What does that mean? Users of your website would find it slower to load; some might get frustrated and leave altogether. For startups that rely on the Internet to deliver products or services, the cost of getting fast enough access could be prohibitive to ever starting at all.
What’s more, the end of net neutrality would affect you as a user of online services. For instance, Abrams notes that free online services such as Skype would have to start charging to provide the same level of service–or go out of business. These days more small businesses rely on free online services to help run their companies—in fact, it’s part of the cost-cutting that has helped many entrepreneurs get through the recession. Raising prices for many of the services small businesses use would hit them in the bank account just as they’re starting to see recovery.
Bet you don’t feel so neutral about net neutrality now, do you? While the legislation is widely viewed as unlikely to pass the Senate—and President Obama has vowed to veto it if it does—given how often net neutrality has been challenged in the past, this is a debate that we haven’t seen the end of. If you’d like to keep Internet access equal for all, let your congressional representatives know how you feel.