Over the greater part of the last year, internet-loving people have held their breath while the Federal Communications Commission decides whether or not to preserve net neutrality by reclassifying the internet as a utility. The sentiment I'm increasingly hearing from those in the industry, though, is this: Does the FCC's ultimate decision even matter anymore?
The answer, in the short term, is "probably." Many people around the United States are still stuck with the "choice" between a big cable company and a big phone company, both of which are champing at the bit to start some sort of metered system. The prospect of a Comcast-Time Warner merger doesn't make things look any better, from that standpoint.
But market forces and consumer expectations of unfettered internet access appear to be pushing the industry in a net neutral direction. In the long term, it's looking more and more like fast lanes are a loser, big telecom's stranglehold on the industry is loosening, and consumers are simply unwilling to deal with their crap any longer.
"All of these issues are symptoms of a not adequately competitive marketplace"
For a good while there, it was looking like big telecom's monopolistic hold on infrastructure would make the net neutrality decision a defining moment for the future of the internet. It was posited that this was, quite literally, the "Battle for the Net" and that the entire way we live online would change if net neutrality was shot down. If, in any given city, there is only one way to get online, then that line of thinking would make sense.
But in recent months, it's become clear that competition is coming, and it's coming from all angles. Competitively speaking, smaller internet companies are saying that paid prioritization makes no sense.
Elon Musk and others are ready to provide internet from space—to anyone, anywhere, using net neutrality principles. President Obama and the FCC are ready to help communities build their own networks, all of which (that I know of) are operating with open, unfettered internet access as a core premise. Google Fiber is rapidly expanding. And then you have the startups and smaller ISPs, who look at the letter writing campaigns, the calls from hell with Comcast that get blown up on Reddit and in the media, and the protests over net neutrality and figure they can easily take a chunk of business from big telecom.
Those are all major developments in the broadband space that didn't exist on this scale even three months ago. The fervor about the net neutrality backlash was never really about net neutrality, it was about a growing dissatisfaction with the internet ecosystem in general, said Dane Jasper, CEO of Sonic, a West Coast ISP that has long supported net neutrality and has always sold internet at speeds that are "as fast as it'll go."
"I think it was an opportunity for consumers to vent their frustration with their feelings of lack of choice. The net neutrality fight is just a symptom of that frustration," he told me. "All of these issues, flaky performance and inadequate upgrades or unreliable installers or paying too much is a symptom of a not adequately competitive marketplace."
In other words, paid prioritization and fast lanes only play in a monopolistic marketplace. Otherwise, it makes no business sense.
"The story of the fight for net neutrality is a story of the impossible turned into the inevitable"
"Net neutrality is such an odd thing to be upset about. It's this incredibly esoteric telecom issue that's difficult for the layperson to understand, and then you see all this outcry about it," Jasper said. "What that says to me is, consumers are tired of having no choices."
Jasper said there's no reason for the tiered price system that big ISPs have set up—artificially slowing down traffic is a money play, nothing more, he argued.
"A performance or size constraint on a product like a hamburger makes sense. There's more cow in a Double Whopper," he said. "There isn't more broadband in a 50MB connection or in a 10MB connection over the same wire."
I'm hearing Jasper's sentiment echoed all over the place. When I spoke to Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows, a domain name company that's getting into the fiber business, he said he doesn't really care what the FCC's ultimate decision on net neutrality is, because in order to keep customers happy, the internet has to stay the way it is now.
"We like to think of net neutrality as a sensible business practice. Our customers are buying internet access from us not anything else. It's our responsibility to see that content like Netflix is fast on our network," he said.
Comcast and other large ISPs aren't going away anytime soon, but these businesses have shown, time and time again, that when they are forced to provide better services because of increased competition, they will.
Even net neutrality's staunchest supporters have started to suggest that the battle has been all but won. Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for the Future, the group that has organized many of the larger-scale protests and letter writing campaigns targeted at the FCC to preserve net neutrality, said he's been astounded at all the different people who have asked him to be involved.
"The story of the fight for net neutrality is a story of the impossible turned into the inevitable," Greer wrote in an op-ed at The Hill. "I talked to a rapper from the Bronx, a farmer from South Dakota, a high ranking Google employee, several high school students, people with disabilities, religious folks, LGBTQ activists, and grandmas. No seriously, So. Many. Grandmas. I talked to people who said they had never called Congress before about anything, and who said they didn't follow politics much but this issue had them fired up."
No matter what the FCC decides, all that attention, all that outrage has spurred a backlash that small businesses, big businesses, small city politicians, and even space companies couldn't ignore. The question now is how long will it take for them to come to the rescue?