At times, Netflix movies make up a third of traffic

Federal Communications Commission Proposes New Open Internet Rules

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler (C) speaks during an open meeting to receive public comment on proposed open Internet notice of proposed rulemaking and spectrum auctions May 15, 2014 at the FCC headquarters in Washington, DC. The FCC has voted in favor of a proposal to reform net neutrality and could allow Internet service providers to charge for faster and higher-quality service.

The Federal Communications Commission voted today to open its latest net neutrality proposal to public comments.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has said the commission is "dedicated to protecting and preserving an open internet." Much of the debate around the current proposal has focused on the agreement between Netflix and Comcast, in which Netflix pays extra to guarantee its content is delivered to homes without delay. Netflix accounts for about a third of peak-period broadband traffic. So what does that mean for the net neutrality debate?

"I don't think it matters," says Barbara van Schewick, faculty director of the Center for Internet and Society at the Stanford Law School, "because under a good network neutrality regime, people pay for the bandwidth they use and it doesn't really matter where it comes from."

For example, think about the way we pay for electricity in the summer. A much larger portion of the energy we use is generated by air conditioners. "We don't say the electricity companies should be charging the air conditioning producers for the fact that they create all this demand for electricity," van Schewick says.

Under net neutrality, the same rules would apply to the internet. Broadband providers couldn't charge based on the type of content, or its source. So Netflix or email or Spotify would all be treated the same. Users could only be charged on the amount of bandwidth used.

And Netflix, being a video streaming service, takes up lots of bandwidth. "I think it's important to know that Netflix pays for that," says John Blevins, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. Netflix pays a substantial amount to send out its shows through the internet. "The concern," says Blevins, "is that the internet companies, because they own essentially the driveway to your house, the only way into your house, they want to charge Netflix twice."

That second charge is what's often called paid prioritization, which is currently allowed by the FCC. Over the next 120 days the FCC will take comments from the public on whether that policy should stand.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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