Net neutrality isn’t a big deal: the contrarian’s take

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I’m not sure where I stand on the net neutrality debate at the moment. My gut says net neutrality is a good thing and we should fight for it. But when my gut happens to be leaning in the same direction as an angry mob, I check myself.

Net neutrality is the principle that all network traffic should be treated equally by ISPs like Comcast and Verizon. Netflix movies should load as fast as YouTube movies, which should load as fast as mom-and-pop-streaming-dot-com. When net neutrality ceases to become the law of the land, ISPs might charge consumers extra fees to access the services they want at top speeds. They might program their networks to prioritize the delivery of content created by entities they own (i.e. NBC programming will load faster than ABC for Comcast customers).

I’m no fan of ISPs. (See also: I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and don’t have internet in my apartment). But this isn’t a clear case of good vs. evil, either.

Two articles in particular have started to change my thinking on this.

Ben Thompson

Ben starts by debunking a bit of marketing material from Portugal, which has been used to demonstrate the ills of net neutrality. It appears to show an internet plan in which access to iTunes, Pandora, and Last.fm cost more.

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The rub? Ben explains:

There’s just one problem with the tweet I embedded above: Portugal uses Euros, and the language is Portuguese; the tweet above has dollars and English. The image is completely made-up […] the packages [are] for an additional 10GB/month of data.

He goes on to argue that Title II classification (which the new proposed rules roll back) is overkill, and that regulations that introduce fewer complications (and thus unintended consequences) are better. If my summary sounds dumb to you, give his argument a second chance and read the whole thing.

Tyler Cowen

Tyler’s argument is even easier to recap: based on two recent studies, he thinks the rule change won’t make much of a difference at all.

The first analyzes the stock prices of the big ISPs and Netflix in 2015 when the soon-to-be rolled back net neutrality rules were introduced:

When the court first struck down net neutrality, Netflix shares rose in value. When Obama made it clear he would try to reinstitute net neutrality, Netflix shares fell in value. Again, those patterns reflect the opposite of the usual critical story that Netflix or its customers will be charged a fortune for bandwidth use if net neutrality is removed. Netflix shares have done fine over the last year, even in light of this expected revision to net neutrality policies.

That’s only one example, and it hardly proves that service prioritization will benefit the internet as a whole. Still, we’ve been living with various forms of nonneutrality for some while, and when they’re not framed as such we typically don’t find them so outrageous.

Get his full argument here.

Conclusion

While I think net neutrality is a worthy principle, there’s more than one way to achieve it. I think over-regulation can be over-burdensome, especially in the fast-changing technology landscape of broadband.

Hi, I live in Williamsburg Brooklyn and don’t have internet in my apartment

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Not to brag, but my wife and I live in a studio apartment with exposed brick walls and hardwood floors in what was Brooklyn’s hippest neighborhood until Whole Foods opened in the summer of 2016.

It’s a nice place, but in the rush to secure an apartment earlier this year, we neglected to ask what I thought was an unnecessary question: Does this building have internet access?

Had we asked, the answer would’ve been, yes, if you count DSL as internet.

But since we didn’t ask, I looked around the perimeter of the apartment only to find a phone line. So I emailed the management company and asked where the cable hookups were. The building is only wired for DSL, I think, was the response.

Next, I called every other ISP in the New York area and had the same conversation with each of them.

Me: I’m calling to see if I can get your service in my building.
Person on phone: What’s your address?
Me: [address redacted]
Them: No.

I quickly ran out of options, so I called Verizon and signed up for “high-speed” DSL, even though I doubted the salesperson’s claims that I would be able to stream video with speeds of 3–7 megabytes-per-second.

In fact, the fastest connection speed I ever recorded was 0.8 mbps. It was completely useless.

Plan G it was. I cancelled Verizon and added an extra iPhone to our T-Mobile plan and picked up a $49 Lightning-to-HDMI cable so we can stream Netflix right from the extra phone to the TV. We use the personal hotspot to go online with our laptops.

It’s a reasonably sufficient solution about 75% of the time; the remaining 1/4 of the time is spent watching web pages slowly come in to focus or staring at a black screen waiting for Hulu to load, and wondering how the heck it’s possible to not have internet access in New York City.

15% of Americans don’t use the internet

I kind of thought it would be higher. What do you think?

From Pew:

The size of this group has changed little over the past three years, despite recent government and social service programs to encourage internet adoption. But that 15% figure is substantially lower than in 2000, when Pew Research first began to study the social impact of technology. That year, nearly half (48%) of American adults did not use the internet.

It breaks down more or less as you’d expect:

Seniors are the group most likely to say they never go online. About four-in-ten adults ages 65 and older (39%) do not use the internet, compared with only 3% of 18- to 29-year-olds. Household income and education are also indicators of a person’s likelihood to be offline. A third of adults with less than a high school education do not use the internet, but that share falls as the level of educational attainment increases. Adults from households earning less than $30,000 a year are roughly eight times more likely than the most affluent adults to not use the internet.

I’m OK with the old people getting left behind, they’re going to move beyond soon anyway. But more really needs to be done to get internet access to low-income families.

Philadelphia councilpeople recently wrote a letter {philly mag} to two Comcast execs, as part of the public push to get more concessions from Comcast (which is now negotiating for a new 15-year franchising agreement, which is basically over the rights of Comcast to dig up the streets to put stuff underground).

From the letter:

Far too many Philadelphians still lack access to this option, with broadband penetration in the City of Philadelphia falling stubbornly behind our counterparts in other major cities. The recent announcement of the expansion of Internet Essentials is a positive first step. But Comcast can further open the door of opportunity for thousands of low-income individuals and families, as well as senior citizens and persons with disabilities. Expanding Internet Essentials to seniors on a pilot basis in Florida is a commendable step but why not pilot the same program in your home city? What digital divide issues exist in West Palm Beach that haven’t existed here in Philadelphia over the last two decades?

Well said.

App Tells You How Many Times You Check Your Phone

It’s called Moment, and it’s:

an iOS app that automatically tracks how much you use your iPhone and iPad each day. If you’re using your phone too much, you can set daily limits on yourself and be notified when you go over. You can even force yourself off your device when you’re over your limit.

I’m not going that far. But it’s interesting to see how many times I check my phone. (For the record: less than the average but still a lot.)

Apparently boredom is actually good for creativity, which makes sense—I rarely come up with a novel solution to a problem while actively thinking about it. It all happens in the magic of the subconscious.

And the research backs this up:

“You come up with really great stuff when you don’t have that easy lazy junk food diet of the phone to scroll all the time,” says Sandi Mann.

Mann’s research finds that idle minds lead to reflective, often creative thoughts (we discuss her projects in depth in this week’s show). Minds need to wander to reach their full potential.

Heard about it from the New Tech City podcast, which cites the following statistics:

58% of American adults have a smartphone today. The average mobile consumer checks their device 150 times a day, and 67% of the time, that’s not because it rang or vibrated. 44% of Americans have slept with their phone next to their beds.

Listen to the episode to find out more about the research, including a really cool experiment that had its subjects read the phone book.

61% of Americans Don’t Really Need the Internet

Nice year-end summary of American life from Pew—documenting our habits and preferences from political ideology and wages, to family structures and Internet usage.

This is among the more striking findings to me:

Americans are now more attached to their cellphones and internet access than their televisions or landline telephones, marking a shift in their communications habits since 2006. Over half of internet users now say the internet would be “very hard” to give up. And among this devoted group, 61% say the internet is essential to them, either for work or other reasons. Translated to the whole population, 39% of all Americans feel they absolutely need to have internet access.

Taking the inverse there, 61% of Americans don’t feel like they absolutely need the Internet? That’s amazing. And I’m only saying that with a little bit of my tongue in my cheek.