As 2015 ramps up, I can’t help but think net neutrality could be the lasting issue of 2014 in tech.
It’s great seeing the topic discussed by the general public, but as we see the debate actually entering into the political sphere in 2015 and beyond, it’s important that people—especially in an area with an economy as tech-driven as the Triangle—know how important a free and open web is to the tech industry and small businesses. Frankly, as an entrepreneur, I’m terrified of losing net neutrality, and you should be too. This affects us all, and it’s bigger than simply how fast your Netflix queue loads.
One of the fundamental founding principles of the Internet was providing open and accessible information (think a bulletin board). This soon grew to interactive information exchange (email and messaging), and now has matured to allowing services and data storage (Amazon Web Services, Google Docs). You know the rest—our entire lives are online now: business, social, education, everything.
What you may not have known is the threat to the speed with which you access all of these services, and how that can affect your job too. While our friends who help deliver the Google, Netflix and Facebooks of the world via your internet connection (TWC, Comcast, AT&T, Verizon etc) insist they would never unfairly manipulate the speeds of competitors or slow down and charge services that use significant bandwidth, their track record has proven otherwise.
As important as your Netflix cravings are (I have a daughter, I know), this has the potential to impact our community and local economy tremendously. I own a company called ShiftZen in Durham
, which makes software for companies to schedule employees online. We’re growing at a relatively slow rate—our product only costs about $1 a day for most customers, and we’re (purposefully) only gaining a few customers a week. This is what we want at this point. We have fair-priced hosting, keep our advertising to a minimum and work diligently on communicating closely with our customers to fine tune the product. We are bootstrapped and lean, but still provide full time jobs for three people in the Triangle and a fantastic technologist in Costa Rica. We also utilize a number of local contractors, fellow small business owners and moonlighters. Search engines are slowly but surely giving us ranking increases as more people 'talk' about us and we are on a great track. I have no fear about our success.
My point is, I feel great about what we can control. And since the internet has remained relatively free and open to all services and providers like myself, then it’s simply up to the user like yourself to pick which of the competition you like the most. In other words, it’s a fair game.
But not if the net isn’t neutral. The reason we’re even discussing this issue right now is because just this year Comcast throttled Netflix’s speeds and asked it to cough up some extra cash for connection fees because of the enormous amount of bandwidth Netflix uses (Netflix accounts for a jaw-dropping third of all US internet traffic during primetime). While there are plenty of third party content delivery networks for Netflix and companies like mine to sign up with instead of Comcast to move our content around the country, nearly everyone in America actually plugs into the wall with one of a few major providers (the aforementioned Comcast, TWC, AT&T, Verizon) in what is called “the last mile” (because it is literally the final mile of cable line to your house). Netflix, Google, ShiftZen and everyone else literally has to pass through those companies to get to you.
The problem here is obvious: If one of my competitors pays Comcast to give it preferred speeds, or even to slow down my website and my app, I would be ruined. The Netflixes and Googles of the world would get all the attention when they started bidding for Time Warner Cable’s favor. But it’s the startups like ShiftZen—the companies that look a lot like Instagram two years ago—that would get wiped out before they even had a chance.
It isn’t hard to imagine some of today’s web giants never happening if there wasn’t a free and open barrier to entry when those companies were still small. As a consumer, you may like Facebook, but if it had to compete with the big boys for preferred bandwidth when it was small, we may never have gotten to see The Social Network. If a lack of net neutrality had kept a couple kids in their dorm room from getting to work one summer, would we be saying, “Just Google it.”?
Let’s not find out.