Proponents of the FCC’s movement to abolish Obama-era restrictions on ISPs often cite technological innovation to defend the landmark decision; service providers, they believe, will be free to expand their infrastructure and provide faster, more efficient internet when the burden of government regulation is removed from their backs. In a culture increasingly dependent on high-speed internet, such innovations will become more and more crucial in sustaining our hyperconnected lifestyle. Defenders of net neutrality, on the other hand, argue that ISPs will only “innovate” in extracting as much money from consumers and businesses as possible.
There’s certainly reason to be skeptical that service providers will use their newfound freedom solely to improve services for consumers; namely, the fact that sizable swaths of the United States have very little competition when it comes to ISPs. Without significant competition spurring them to invest in upgrading their networks, ISPs in regions of light competition might have little reason to make expensive upgrades to their services. On the other hand, to say that deregulation of ISPs will by no means lead to infrastructural investment is short sighted. Freedom from restriction has, consistently throughout history, led to a quickened pace of innovation; the proliferation of telephones, for instance, was highly dependent on a restriction-light climate.
But the issue becomes more complicated when one considers the role that ISPs play in dictating the growth potential of other, internet-dependent businesses. The government works as an overseeing force that dictates what service providers can and cannot do; in much the same way, ISPs are forces that determine the capacity for the entities that they serve to expand their economic output. A film streaming service, for instance, is beholden to the service that ISPs provide it. Without the ISP’s dissemination of high-speed internet, there is no streaming service. Thus, while the FCC may be providing ISPs with room for growth by eliminating the restrictions of net neutrality, they may, inadvertently, be giving service providers the freedom to enact restrictions on the businesses that they serve. If a service provider decides to demand that internet-centric businesses must pay for prioritization, little-known streaming services like Filmstruck could have trouble competing.
There is, however, another force overseeing the success of internet-heavy businesses: technological advancement. While it’s true that ISPs unburdened by restriction might be free to pick the winners in losers in arenas like television streaming services, a dearth of technological innovation in infrastructure could also prove to be a challenge to such businesses. As the level of society’s interconnectedness has increased, the population’s thirst for instant access to content and gratification has skyrocketed with it. Businesses will certainly want to capitalize on this demand, but it may not be possible unless the ISPs that form their backbone invest in the high-speed infrastructure to support it.
The debate of net neutrality, then, at least as far as small businesses are concerned, could come down to which restriction will be the least detrimental to economic progress: the restriction of overbearing internet service providers, or the restriction of stymied infrastructural investment.