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Ross: Abandoning net neutrality means more money out of your pocket

There’s a term we’ve heard a lot about over the last few years, yet few of us understand it very well. That term is “net neutrality.”

Since net neutrality is again under threat from the FCC under the Trump administration, I spoke to Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, to explain what it is and why we should care.

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He’s a pretty good person to talk about this because he actually coined the term.

I asked off the bat: With a simple metaphor, what is net neutrality?

“I don’t think we need a metaphor, it’s pretty simple,” Wu said. “It just says your cable company, when they sell you [Internet service], has to let you reach the whole Internet. They can’t sort of block some sites or speed up some sites and slow down others. They are a public utility and they give you the Internet without discriminating between sites.”

It’s easy to assume the Internet is this giant spigot – you’re either tapped into it or you’re not. That’s not the case in places like China, where huge parts of the Internet are blocked off, or certain parts are sped up or slowed down.

“We have this more or less open Internet, and that is something that you have to fight to preserve,” Wu said. “It was designed that way back in the 70s but keeping it that way, like a public commons, actually takes a lot of work.”

That’s where we are currently, and it’s been the law one way or another since the Bush administration and was most recently reenacted under Obama. It has been threatened by the new FCC chairperson, Ajit Pai.

Wu calls Trump’s FCC a “classic insider” who previously worked for a phone company and is not serving the people.

“It is really the swamp personified, and the only people who can support this kind of repeal of net neutrality are people who have been in the swamp so long, they don’t notice the stench anymore,” Wu said.

So how would my Internet change if they did away with net neutrality? Wu says abandoning net neutrality means more money out of your pocket.

“Your bills go up, I think that’s the bottom line here,” he said. “One way or another, the more power cable and phone companies get, they convert it into your bills going up.”

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These could go up in different ways, he says. For example, your local cable company could go to Netflix or Amazon and ask for more money for speed preferences, which would in turn charge you more. Wu said another option would be cable companies selling things like a basic internet package for email and Internet browser for X amount, an enhanced package for $120 and full-fledged access for $200.

“I think they’ll try and introduce tiered pricing and, in the end, it will just mean higher bills for customers,” he said.

Basically, this is the airline model. Where they will nickel and dime you for everything they possibly can.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Wu said. “Right now, the internet is just like you’re on or you’re off. This is giving cable companies the freedom to charge you more for different types of access to things you want.”

The cable companies are willing to admit they want to charge more for faster service on certain sites, but they also nixing net neutrality is the only way they can afford to maintain the optic connections and other things they have to do to make the internet continually faster.

Is that true?

“Umm, no,” Wu said. “I will tell you, I know about the condition of the cable industry and they are printing money even with net neutrality. They are making a fortune. You know that Internet connection, which you probably pay $50 or $60 for, it costs them less than $5 a month to provide for you.”

It’s hard to express just how stunned I am about this. I’ve had to the cable company to my house three times, once to completely re-wire the place because the speeds dropped off so precipitously and because they have to keep updating their modems. Even with all that maintenance on the networks, they are still making those profits?

“The broadband is a cash cow,” Wu said. “The margins are over 97 percent. It’s the most profitable side of the cable business – on average there’s some that are even more.”

Ninety-seven percent? I’ve got to buy way more stock in one of these companies.

“Oh no, they’re living the good life in cable land,” Wu said. “And so this idea, ‘Oh my goodness, we can’t have net neutrality because we can’t make even more money money.’ I don’t know what to say. Baloney. Maybe that’s the word I’ll say on the radio.”

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So what should everyone else who calls baloney do? Wu says to “resist” with popular outrage and even protest.

But the trouble with the term net neutrality – with all due respect to the guy who coined it – is that it doesn’t really lend itself to a good rhyming chant. That would seemingly make demonstrations almost impossible.

“Well, believe it or not, last time this was up, four million people wrote in letters to urge greater controls on the cable companies,” Wu said. “So even though it is a funny word … social security isn’t that sexy as a word either, but people march for it. And it is about a fundamental freedom and it is about an all-American invention, the Internet, which has been great. And it would be a tragedy to let the phone and cable industry basically turn it into something degraded and, frankly, just more and more expensive.”

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