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Net neutrality repeal means you’re going to hate your cable company even more

December 18th, 2017

If you’re like most Americans, odds are you’re not a fan of your cable company. You can probably think of at least one experience that had you pulling your hair out. In fact, from year to year, cable companies consistently rank at the very bottom of the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. But if you think things are bad, they’re about to get much worse under the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to turn control of the Internet over to your cable and Internet provider.

The Internet as we have always known it is an open platform for content, speech and information. Now the FCC is set to vote Thursday on a proposal by Republican Chairman Ajit Pai to obliterate the rules that keep it that way — and in their place, he offers almost nothing. He’ll wrest control of the Internet from the American people and hand it over to existing Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, empowering them to generate new profits by restricting access.

Under Pai’s plan, ISPs can charge web companies for “fast lanes,” holding those who can pay ransom for better service and leaving little guys who can’t pay in the dust. Meanwhile, none of that money will be passed on to consumers in the form of lower rates. If anything, your rates are likely to increase.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s exactly what happened to the cable industry years ago, and it’s why you probably hate your cable company.

Once upon a time, cable was seen as the insurgent ‘outlaw’ of the 1960’s media scene. The new medium challenged the ironclad control broadcast radio and TV networks had over content and introduced unprecedented competition and choice. But gradually, the old industry incumbents wrested control back, and soon it became the monolithic industry we think of today.

Fast forward 20 years, traditional cable companies were the main arbiters of information and entertainment, determining the majority of what consumers got to see in their curated channel line-ups. This created the consolidated market power that meant high prices and relatively few choices we know it as today.

Then the Internet came along and broke this business model wide open. Suddenly, viewers at home saw an explosion of creative new content and voted with their clicks, not their wallets. Essential to the Internet’s growth was net neutrality: All (legal) traffic flowed at the same speed over the network, regardless of ownership or content.

Cable companies panicked at this threat to their business, so they monopolized on Internet connectivity themselves. If you own the pipes and control the speed for content produced by both you and your competitors, you can simply slow transmission for their content or make them pay more for faster access.

Fortunately, no one wanted to see the big companies turn the Internet into the consolidated high-walled cable industry. So over two decades as the Internet grew up, the FCC made sure that it was protecting net neutrality principles. Republicans and Democrats agreed that some form of cop on the beat was needed to keep the companies in line and the Internet open.

Until now. If Pai gets his way, we can all say goodbye to competitive apps and services, and the freedom to choose our own experiences online. Maybe you prefer Netflix content, but if AT&T’s own DirectTV content doesn’t count against your data cap, there’s ample reason to choose that instead. Instead of paying a flat price for access to use any app or service free of charge, companies could start bundling services into “social,” “video,” and so on. Maybe you prefer Twitter — but instead of a free download, you’ll have to buy access to it in a package with Facebook and Snapchat, to the tune of $4.99.

This isn’t hypothetical. Countries without net neutrality already have these business models. Over the past year with the promise of zero accountability on the horizon, the cable ISPs have grown bolder about their plans to cable-ize the Internet. As recently as last week, Comcast, the largest cable-ISP in the country, quietly dropped its promise not to charge for Internet fast lanes.

Once Pai goes through with his plan to gut net neutrality, there is little anyone can do right now to stop the cable-ization of the Internet. And soon we’ll all be sighing: “Once upon a time, the Internet was seen as the insurgent ‘outlaw’ of 21st century media…”

Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo, a Democrat, represents California’s 18th Congressional District. This Op-Ed ran in the December 12, 2017 edition of USA TODAY.

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