How Will Net Neutrality Rules Affect Consumers?

NPR's Robert Siegel talks to CNET.com reporter Marguerite Reardon about how the FCC's new net neutrality rules will affect the consumer.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

How will these new FCC rules actually affect us? A reporter, Marguerite Reardon, is here to help us answer that question. She covers net neutrality for CNET.com.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. MARGUERITE REARDON (Reporter, CNET.com): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Let's sort of look ahead through our crystal monitors here for a moment. We'll leave wireless and mobile access aside. But at home at our computers, in a few years, will the rules that the FCC has just approved really change what we're seeing?

Ms. REARDON: Well, it won't change what we're seeing, but it will hopefully protect what we're seeing. So, for example, today, you're able to stream Netflix on your computer, on your TV via the Internet. Now that these rules are in place, it will protect Verizon or Comcast from potentially trying to slow down Netflix traffic because they want you to be watching their own television service. So in that sense, it adds protection for consumers.

SIEGEL: Now that's one dimension of consumer service, but many of us already have the option to pay more money to, say, Comcast or Verizon if we want a faster Internet connection. Would these rules change that or would it make it more likely that if you want really fast, you can pay more for it?

Ms. REARDON: Well, I think there's a common misconception among people who are trying to follow this net neutrality debate. The Internet is not necessarily free. As you mention, we all pay for it. I may pay $30 a month for five megabit service. I could pay $100 a month for 50 megabit service, right? So we're already paying for it. And so are the carriers, they're already paying for the infrastructure. And what's going to be happening over the next few years is we're seeing a tsunami of traffic coming on to the network. A lot of video...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Ms. REARDON: ...pictures, audio, all kinds of rich media that we, as consumers, are downloading and using. And that puts a lot of strain on these carrier networks and somebody has to pay for it.

SIEGEL: Our leading suspects would be you and me. We'll have to pay for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REARDON: Yes. We will be paying for it as consumers. But another thing that could potentially happen is let's say a company, a medical monitoring company wants to offer a new service that monitors people who have just come home from the hospital. And if they want to have a service that is higher quality, potentially uses more bandwidth, maybe Verizon, for example, could offer them a dedicated service to provide that to their consumers.

But that concerns a lot of the net neutrality proponents because they're afraid what's going to happen is you're going to have two tiers of service or more than two tiers of service. You'll have these higher-cost HOV lanes on the highway. And maybe Verizon or Comcast will cut up four lanes for HOV and they'll leave only one lane left for the regular Internet users. And that could really be a problem, not only for consumers but for the entrepreneurs who are going to be developing new services that we haven't even thought of yet.

SIEGEL: Let's leave my computer aside right now and turn instead to people's smart phones, iPhones, for example. How would what people see there be affected by these rules?

Ms. REARDON: Well, what the FCC has said in these rules is that wireless is going to be treated differently than our fixed broadband connection at home. And that is a very big deal because you have the net neutrality folks on one side who say that's ridiculous. It's one Internet and it's just a different mode of connecting to that Internet.

But then on the other side, you have the wireless service providers who say that the network is very different from a fixed network, and therefore, it needs to be treated differently. And it looks like the FCC has clearly recognized that there are some constraints with wireless networks and they do need to be treated differently.

So for the consumer, what that means is, you know, in the rules, they have actually applied some of the net neutrality rules to wireless, but not all of them. For example, on the fixed side, providers aren't allowed to block any traffic, any websites, they're not allowed to unreasonably degrade any kind of services.

SIEGEL: So let's say I can use Skype, they couldn't stop me from using Skype on my computer.

Ms. REARDON: Well, on the wireless network, that's what they're saying. They're making it very specific that Skype is a service that competes directly with the phone companies. They won't be able to block a service like that. They will have to allow services that compete against their own services to be offered on their network.

And what we've seen already is that the phone companies, the wireless companies have already started to move in this direction because they know that they can't offer every service to consumers and consumers want a rich variety of applications.

SIEGEL: Well, Maggie Reardon, thanks for talking with us about that today.

Ms. REARDON: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Marguerite Reardon who covers net neutrality issues for CNET.com.

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