Net Neutrality Is Quashed, at Least for Now: Will That Repeal Stall Your Startup?
Net neutrality is now officially over. The FCC’s recent decision repealed the mandate that internet service providers must transmit data to all users without discrimination. It was a ruling that triggered an uproar from a diverse array of business owners, as well as public dissent from organizations such as the National Small Business Association.
What’s the fuss about? For a company like Netflix, there’s certainly cause for concern: If telecom companies sell both internet and TV, their decision to engage in some competitive action, like turning down the speed to Netflix, could prove a direct way of eliminating that competition.
Still, this isn’t unfamiliar territory for Netflix, which dealt with sizable drop-offs in its connection speed through ISPs (internet service providers) Comcast and Verizon FiOS back in 2014. But those slowdowns occurred due to passive issues -- bottlenecks in the “peering ports,” which the streaming service eventually worked out.
This new turn of events is different: Phasing out net neutrality means that ISPs could now legally and actively slow down their throughput, which will noticeably worsen the home-viewing experience for viewers of competing services.
What, then, does this mean for entrepreneurs and small businesses?
The threat to entrepreneurs
Though the net neutrality issue seems one-sided, and the disadvantages that a non-net neutrality infrastructure presents seem more potent to smaller businesses, this shift away from an open internet is more complicated than it appears.
Small business owners feel particularly threatened by the legislation because they worry that if ISP companies can throttle some companies’ speeds up or down, those without deep pockets will lose out to the web’s behemoths. Internet startups, especially, will be most vulnerable. Because slowed service could create a clunky user experience that could drive away early adopters, And great ideas could die before they gain sustainable user bases.
If a startup provides streaming, that's even worse. Larger players could easily buy their way out of this problem. Moreover, those big players could even pay for the “fast lanes” to force smaller competitors into a difficult financial decision or cause them marketplace losses.
The overlooked issue
Still, there's one thing that’s almost always overlooked in any net neutrality conversation, and that is the fact that there are two sides to this issue, and both have legitimate concerns. Internet providers spend billions on infrastructure to deliver their direct competitors into the homes of their customers. So, the first side to the issue begs the question whether it’s time to break up the internet/cable providers and create utility companies like gas and electric have.
The second side to the issue is the fact that Comcast, Verizon and AT&T have all already come out in support of an internet that doesn’t discriminate based on user-platform choices. In fact, AT&T recently stated that it remains “committed to an open internet,” going on to explain its stance against censorship and throttling. However, what the company noticeably omitted in its statement was a position on “paid prioritization” -- meaning a scenario where customers pay more for faster lanes.
While it seems unlikely that charging for fast-lane access will happen in the immediate future, whether AT&T’s and other providers’ positions actually match the demands of small businesspeople remains to be seen. Thus, it’s prudent for entrepreneurs and small businesses to be prepared.
So, what steps should entrepreneurs be taking to try to protect the future of their internet-based businesses? Here’s where to start:
1. Get your own house in order.
Although you can’t control the weather, you can prepare for it by buying the right gear. Similarly, while you can't do anything about ending net neutrality in the short term, you can still limit the potential damage it inflicts on their businesses.
This would mean ensuring that your site and services are optimized for speed and deliver the best possible user experience. That way, even if the new policy results in a downgrade to your service, your site’s performance and your services won’t suffer as much.
To optimize, companies should habitually monitor and report their site’s speed and reliability. Sites such as WebPagetest, GTmetrix and Pingdom offer excellent streamlining tools, so there’s no excuse not to start on that project today. Best practices such as optimizing images, minimizing HTTP requests and enabling browser -caching will go a long way toward making your site viable for a “no-net neutrality” reality.
Of course, effectively implementing these practices requires a competent staff who can help minimize lag to continue delivering a truly satisfying user experience.
2. Support net neutrality activism.
While you’re optimizing your business’s online user experience, it’s important to stay informed. If possible, support the various pushes to restore net neutrality any way you can -- by signing petitions, making a financial contribution to activist groups or speaking out in favor of reform.
One such effort is taking shape already: Democratic lawmakers have filed legislation to revert the FCC’s new position. The legislators vow to force a vote later this year on whether to use the Congressional Review Act to overturn the ruling. Of course, given how divided Congress is on all issues -- including this one -- this attempt is far from certain to succeed.
However, advocacy groups may ultimately save the day, much as they did in discouraging the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill from passing in 2012. The groups are confident that there is enormous political energy behind this issue, particularly among millennials. “When you start messing with their internet, politics is no longer abstract,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, told reporters. “It’s a very, very serious and personal matter to mess with someone’s internet.”
3. Go for broke.
Some companies aren't just grousing: they're taking things further by outright suing the FCC, through the political action group, the Internet Association. The group, which represents giants such as Google, Facebook and Etsy, announced that it will join an expected lawsuit against the FCC ruling, (Etsy has said it intends to also sue separately.)
Bringing charges individually may be expensive and distracting for smaller businesses, but you might consider joining the lawsuits these internet giants are carrying out. If you’re looking for a precedent, an astounding 28 million small business owners were represented in a class-action lawsuit against Equifax over its security breach last year.
However the net neutrality issue plays out, we can be certain of one thing: It won’t fade away quietly. It’s an issue that lies at the center of presidential and legislative politics, the frontier of high-speed communications and the heart of day-to-day activities like binge-watching an entire season of a favorite TV show.
While net-neutrality repeal may be an issue pundits talk about well into the next decade, your company can weather the storm and join in the community of enthusiastic internet users and cutting-edge tech companies determined to thrive in spite of it.