As a high-tech industry analyst, I have worked from home for more than a decade. As someone who tracks new technology and is always on the lookout for a better communications solution, I migrated to a Voice over Internet Protocol service through Vonage early after its introduction.
The service was great. I had great call quality and the flexibility to take the service anywhere. That went on for close to two years — until Cox Communications purchased my cable provider, Cable America.
Cable America did not offer a competing VoIP service, so there was never a reason for Cable America to limit the performance of my Vonage service. The act of limiting bandwidth for a competing service usually is referred to as “throttling.”
However, Cox Communications did offer a competing voice service that was a bit more expensive. It did not offer the same features — at least not for the base price — and it did not allow the flexibility of the Vonage service.
Too Much Power
Once Cox took over in our area (Mesa, Arizona), the call quality on Vonage deteriorated until it became so bad that the service became unusable. Cox throttled the Vonage service to make it uncompetitive. I was forced, begrudgingly, to switch to the Cox service.
This is a firsthand example of how a service provider worked to limit competition prior to the Net neutrality rules passed under the previous FCC administration. Cox denied throttling allegations, but the results were clear to the end users.
Cox then locked me into the service once Net neutrality was implemented, by threatening to raise the cost of my Internet service if I dropped the VoIP service. The increase was more than the cost of the VoIP service itself.
In general, I am hesitant to promote government regulation, because regulators tend to do more harm than good when it comes to the technology industry. In this case, however, regulation was needed to promote competition and protect consumers.
Prior to adoption of the Net neutrality rules, service providers often used the argument that the industry could police itself better than regulators could. In a completely open market that might be true, but communications service providers wield an enormous amount of control because of the high barriers to entry.
While I agree that service providers should be compensated for the cost of installing and maintaining a very expensive infrastructure, they should not be allowed to manipulate the market to the detriment of consumers.
One Solution: New Tech
Net neutrality helped promote competition and spawned innovation through new services and business models to the benefit of the industry and consumers. Eliminating Net neutrality may limit innovation and competition in the short term, but it may fuel more innovation in the long term.
With the introduction of new wireless technologies such as Gigabit LTE and mmWave, wireless communication performance rivals the performance of many wired networks. These new options may help push more consumers to cut the cords to their wired services completely.
These technologies also may pull new competitors into the wireless market — an easier market to enter than the wired segment — if the current carriers abuse their control over network traffic and performance.
One can only hope that the short-term pain results in long-term options for consumers, and continues to push the industry to innovate around the additional barriers.