Back in 2015, Net Neutrality was a hot topic of conversation. The principle prohibits internet service providers (ISPs) from changing internet speeds and blocking content, and is how the internet has been made available since its conception. Just as phone network providers can’t prevent you from calling certain numbers or police what you say on those calls, ISPs can’t dictate how you use the internet.
This historic principle that kept the internet an open portal that allows users to access information and communicate freely became federal law in 2015, based on Title II of the Communications Act, after pressure from millions of activists on the Federal Communications Commission.
Without Net Neutrality, an ISP could potentially slow down competitor content, or block sites that expressed opinions it didn’t agree with, or charge for improved speeds – relegating those who can’t afford to pay the charges to a slow service. This would be detrimental to small businesses who do not have the capital to pay for increased speeds.
With net neutrality, VoIP providers have access to the same internet freedom and equality as everyday users. The initial FCC ruling meant that the services that VoIP providers share with their customers can’t be restricted by ISPs or phone networks. Businesses can choose the VoIP provider best suited to their needs, regardless of whether they are owned by their ISP.
Without net neutrality, VoIP providers might have to pay to maintain connection speeds or be forced to subject their users to a slower service. ISPs could choose to throttle the delivery of VoIP traffic that is being routed through their competitors.
On April 26th, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai unveiled his plans for removing Net Neutrality – just two years after the initial ruling. He plans to reclassify broadband companies so they are no longer designated as ‘common carriers’ – the classification that means they are regulated as public utilities. His proposal would mean that ISPs would not be obliged to uphold the principles of Net Neutrality. They could merely promise to abide by the rules and include them in their terms of service. The FCC would also delegate the task of overseeing ISPs to another agency, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which doesn’t have the same level of authority of the FCC and hasn’t got the power to make pre-emptive rules. It could only act after a company did not honour their terms of service, relying on a level of trust between the FTC and ISPs. This regulation would extend to telecommunications companies, meaning that the vast amounts of data that they handle could be protected under different privacy rules.
The major repercussions that could impact VoIP if the repeal of the Net Neutrality laws goes ahead concern data and speed restrictions. The fears that ISPs will slow down internet speeds for those who cannot afford to pay have resurfaced, along with data worries. Paid prioritisation, where companies pay for preferential connection speeds, would negatively impact smaller businesses who don’t have enough available capital. Without Net Neutrality, larger enterprises could pay for an unfair advantage. The popularity of apps that mobile providers can make exempt from a user’s data allowance have created a new worry: that only certain content will be available in this way, and that this will be governed by ISPs. Favoured services could receive data breaks while competitor services would require data from a customer’s allowance to be used. This could extend to VoIP providers, removing the free market competition.
FTC acting Republican chair Maureen Ohlhausen has dismissed criticisms of the repeal, insisting that fears are not justified. She believes that market forces will ensure that competition remains and that no unfair advantages will occur. It remains to be seen whether Net Neutrality will indeed be repealed. 800 startups, innovators, and investors sent a letter to Pai on Wednesday arguing the case for keeping the laws in place. Any decision will need to define clearly how telecommunications companies and ISPs are both classified and regulated to ensure that consumers are protected.