The lion’s share of online poetry videos (in English, at any rate) are uploaded in the U.S. and, if Moving Poems’ site stats are any indication, their largest audience is also in the U.S. That’s to be expected, I suppose. But there’s a big problem: our internet infrastructure is terrible, among the worst in the developed world. It’s slow, it’s hideously expensive, and a significant portion of the rural population is still on dial-up. I personally have a slow DSL connection via Verizon, one of a handful of enormous, nearly monopolistic providers. Verizon, however, seems to have given up earlier plans to build out its fiber optic network in favor of concentrating on its mobile network, which needless to say is not a viable option for the regular consumption of video for anyone who isn’t pulling a six-figure salary. And the two biggest cable providers, Comcast and Time Warner, recently announced plans for a merger, further reducing competition and thus any fucking incentive whatsoever to improve U.S. internet service.
Against this background came last month’s decision by a federal appeals court to strike down parts of the Federal Communications Commission’s admittedly Byzantine “net neutrality” rules cobbled together in 2010. This means that ISPs could start throttling the bandwidth from any website they choose, for any reason — and what uses more bandwidth than streaming video? It doesn’t help if an ISP is also a significant content provider such as Time Warner and doesn’t fancy the competition. YouTube’s owner Google could easily afford to reach agreements with ISPs. But could Vimeo, and the welter of smaller video hosting companies? What about start-ups bringing us the Next Big Thing in online video?
And sure enough: within weeks, charges were flying that Verizon was deliberately slowing down Netflix. With the second season of the über-popular American version of House of Cards, a web-only Netflix original, released this month, the politicians in D.C. might actually be paying attention, because the show is all about corrupt congressmen — and as we all know, politicians are a supremely self-regarding lot. Susan Crawford, author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the Gilded Age, said in an excellent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air that many if not most congressional representatives will admit in private that net neutrality is important, but may be afraid to say so publicly because of the power of the telecom industry. So let’s hope they and their aides are big House of Cards fans… and that their constituents keep up the pressure.
But the main action on net neutrality rules shifted from stop-gap measures in Congress back to the Federal Communications Commission this week, as FCC chair Tom Wheeler issued a statement recommending that the commission write new rules that the courts might find acceptable. Predictably, a telecom industry tool in the House of Representatives immediately proposed legislation that would block the FCC from doing this.
Comcast, meanwhile, announced that it had reached some sort of agreement with Netflix, as tens of thousands of people registered their discontent with the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger via online petition sites, emails to the FCC, etc. Comcast are desperate to portray themselves as reasonable players — and Netflix is surely eager to hedge their bets in case net neutrality isn’t restored. Or as GigaOm writer Stacey Higginbotham put it:
There are two ways of interpreting this news. The first is that Netflix, worried about the threat of the FCC dismantling network neutrality and allowing ISPs to start charging content providers for delivering their traffic, decided to make a deal early when it could get lower prices. The second is the opposite; that Comcast, trying to appear benevolent as it seeks to create the largest broadband provider in the country via a merger with Time Warner Cable, peered with Netflix to avoid regulators asking tough questions.
Let’s take the optimistic scenario and assume that the FCC approves new net neutrality rules, the courts uphold them, and Congress doesn’t fuck with them. We’re still left with craptastic internet in the country that invented it. According to Susan Crawford, it may be years before that will change, and it will probably happen city by city and region by region in a piecemeal fashion. But at least net neutrality would provide a level playing field for new innovators — and allow me to continue surfing Vimeo and YouTube for new poetry videos on my 1.5 mps “broadband” connection from Verizon.