Monday, March 02, 2015

Being Frank about net neutrality

I have Leonard Hofstadter's line on my phone from "The Big Bang Theory.” The line is, "What's going on?" every time someone messages me. 
Last week, I was on my way to an oil change when our school corporation texted me about a two-hour delay the following morning. 
I pulled into a parking lot, pulled up our newspaper's website administrative page and quickly added the notification to our website’s front page. 
People learned about the school delay and made necessary arrangements hours before the delay would be on TV or any other media in our area. 
Records kept on our website indicate 1,000 more individuals are looking at our website on average each day than a year ago. I am told that is because people know we will be up to date with local news, weather and sports 24/7. 
I say this because the Internet has changed life dramatically and made it better in so many ways. My Internet is just fine. I don’t think I need more government control of what I view or listen to on the Net. 
However, I have been watching the debate about “net neutrality" for many weeks and now the Federal Communications Commission has ruled to make the Internet neutral, I wonder what the future holds. 
The principal of net neutrality is that the big Internet service providers can no longer give preference to companies that use a lot of bandwidth like Netflix. Netflix uses a ton of bandwidth because it is all streaming video.  
What is bandwidth? Think of the Internet as a highway. You and I drive our cars and the big semis drive down the same highway. Companies like Hulu and Netflix that stream a lot of video can be compared to a semi moving down that highway, pulling an oversize load that is taking up multiple lanes. 
We get frustrated at times when real highways get crowded and we cannot drive as fast as we want. It’s even worse when a two-lane road is hogged by many semis and if a truck comes along with an extra side load, it slows us down even more. 
The Internet is like that. We all know that the Internet slows considerably at certain times of the year. Cyber Monday has been known to really slow things down. That is the day during the Christmas shopping season when many people go online to shop. We used to see the really big crowds at the mall on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Now, many people sit at work (or at home) and shop the Internet on Cyber Monday and the big box stores like Walmart cater to those shoppers with big discounts, just like they cater to shoppers on Black Friday. 
As frustrated as we may get with lots of traffic on the highway, we would be really angry if traffic cops showed up one day, holding the rest of us back so the Acme Trucking Company could drive faster and had the right of way over the cars on that highway. 
Net neutrality is designed to be sure Netflix or any other company doesn't have that kind of priority over the rest of us who are surfing the Web.  
Some Internet providers were charging Netflix extra for access to the Internet highway and in effect slowing down the Internet for everyone else as the video companies were granted extra bandwidth. . 
That may sound great if you are paying $8 per month for Netflix and you want to watch "Rocky and Bullwinkle" without the screen freezing up for seconds at a time. No one enjoys watching that little colored wheel spinning and you sit there, unable to click anything with your mouse. If you are trying to access other websites and your pages open more slowly or videos or sound files on other sites freeze because your Internet provider gives Netflix priority ... well, you might think that's not fair. 
So, I am conflicted about net neutrality. I don’t have Netflix so I really don’t want Netflix or Hulu  or any other company to get priority just because they can pay more than the websites I want to surf — like this one you’re reading now, for example.
I come down on the side of law and order in the wild west. 
By that I mean government has a place and business has a place in our world. 
Over the years we have seen what happened when big business operated unfettered. One of the most recent examples the recent recession. Many of us think the financial collapse was triggered by the huge banking companies that were deregulated and then loaned money for mortgages to people who couldn't make the payments. 
The exact cause and effect of the recession is still being debated but it's apparent to me that government rules (a.k.a. intervention) is necessary for the same reason we have speed limits and stop lights on our roads. 
People cannot be expected to always do the right thing. Greed often gets in the way. 
So, I have decided I do favor net neutrality as I understand the rules to be at this time.
Now, some of the big media companies have expressed concern that net neutrality will lead to undesirable control of the Internet. I hope that fear is not founded. 
I hope, for example, we never have to pay "postage" to the government for email. There was a move afoot to charge postage on email to make things more “fair" for the U. S. Postal Service. That e-mail tax would only serve to throw more business to the U.S.P.S. but I care much more about what's fair for individuals than for the USPS, which has a monopoly when it comes to carrying letters, anyway. 
One thing the new net neutrality rules does not address is the practice of Internet throttling. That is what happens when people think they have an unlimited data plan. But those folks are becoming upset when they learn their data plan provider lets them run full blast on the Internet until they reach a certain amount of data. Then, the company slows down that person’s Internet access speed for the rest of that monthly cycle. 
It’s like the old joke. A man reads a sign on the window of a diner, “All you can eat for $2!.” 
“Wow!” he thinks. “What a deal.” 
He does in, orders a sandwich, eats it and asks for another. 
He is charged for the second sandwich. 
“But your sign says, ‘All you can eat!’” 
“That’s right. One sandwich is all you can eat.” 
The data plan may say, “Unlimited” but it doesn’t say how long you will have to wait for that web page to open after you have reached the throttling threshold. 
I do not think the government should regulate data speed throttling because cell phone users can switch plans or companies. 
Yes sir, we have come a long way from the days when my parents had two black dial up phones in the house and the number on both was Mutual 3-3874. Now, we all have our own cell phone numbers and I can pull over when I'm in the car and update our company's website on the way to getting my car oil charged. 
Is this a great country or what? 

Frank Phillips is a reporter for The Brazil Times. His e-mail is frank.phillips@gmail.com.