If you’re looking for some spot-on proof that the United States’ antitrust laws from the 1890’s were a good idea, you don’t need to look any further than the current state of the Internet service industry.
There are 50 states in this republic of ours, but only 12 ISPs have emerged as market leaders to serve our country’s nearly 280 million Internet subscribers.
Can you detect a problem here? While Americans have probably gotten used to living alongside our many faceless corporate neighbors, it just doesn’t make sense to place control over the Internet—arguably the most important public utility (more on that phrase in a bit) of our time—in the hands of just a dozen companies. That imbalance of power is simply unsustainable, not to mention anathema to the very idea of progress and innovation.
Infographic source: here
And it’s only going to get worse; Comcast and Time Warner Cable—two of America’s largest ISPs—tried to merge earlier this year in order to create an even more monolithic presence in the Internet service industry. In case you hadn’t heard, Comcast recently took top prize in Consumerist’s tournament for worst company in America. And Time Warner Cable was a finalist.
I don’t need to tell you how much of a blow this plan would have been to the very idea of competition—a core principle of capitalism and one of the reasons the Sherman Antitrust Law was drawn up 124 years ago. And yet, even after the FTC shut it down, these two juggernauts were already looking ahead at the next possible deal.
So what’s the solution?
One proposed solution has come about thanks to the recent explosion of support for the Net Neutrality movement, and it involves the way we classify—or don’t classify—the utilities that almost every American uses on a daily basis. These include water, electricity, gas, and – you guessed it – our Internet infrastructure.
One of the tenets of the Net Neutrality movement is the idea that the Internet should remain an impartial transportation system for the flow of information. In other words, Netflix shouldn’t have to pay Time Warner or Comcast any amount of blood money to ensure that their customers get the same service as everybody else. Our so-called “Internet traffic jam” is a problem deliberately engineered by America’s ISPs to squeeze more money out of companies like Netflix—and the cost of this kind of brinksmanship will soon spill over onto the average consumer as well.
In other words: if you think Netflix is done hiking their prices, you might want to think again.
If we ever succeed in permanently adopting fair Net Neutrality legislation in this country, it would ensure that every user of the Internet will enjoy the same quality of service. No exceptions. The FCC and the White House have been doing their best, but America’s Internet providers are rising up as one to condemn and threaten our fledgling efforts at leveling the playing field. It will be years before we have closure on this issue.
And part of that solution hinges on our reclassification of the Internet as a public utility – just like electricity, water, and gas. This would effectively turn America’s physical infrastructure into a much more open, accessible, secure, and transparent place to work and play, as opposed to the closed-off and restricted system we have now, where corporate myopia and greed hold sway.
The good news is that we have a tech-savvy President and an FCC chairman who both helped with the adoption of strong net neutrality laws earlier this year. Legal challenges notwithstanding, this is a huge step in the right direction, and will set the tone of the conversation for a long time to come.
And there’s even more good news—or at least the possibility of good news. Earlier in 2015, President Obama traveled the country championing the importance of a free and open Internet and explaining why it’s more crucial than ever that we remove the barriers to municipal broadband construction. A recent stop put him in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where consumers now enjoy some of the fastest gigabit Internet currently available—and it was made possible because the city chose to put its pushy ISP incumbents on notice. Here’s hoping something sentiments take root in the nation’s capital; a municipal alternative to the private sector’s bullying would be a welcome change for a majority of Americans.