If net neutrality is cancelled in the US, what could it mean for the Caribbean?
Plans are currently underway in the US to roll back having open and equitable access to the Internet. Here, we discuss some of the possible implications for the Caribbean.
Over the past several years, Internet (net) neutrality has been a topic of considerable debate worldwide, with vociferous supporters and compelling arguments on both sides of the divide. It has also been an issue we, here at ICT Pulse, have been tracking since our inception over six years ago. In summary, net neutrality is “the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites” (Source: Oxford Living Dictionaries).
Although the Internet is a decentralised network, a significant portion of its administration globally is based in the United States of America (US). Further much of the English-based content and applications that we take for granted either reside, and/or are generated, in the US. As a result, many countries worldwide, and by extension their businesses and consumers, are affected by the telecoms and iCT policies adopted in US, and frequently, those policies are used as a precedent for what could be adopted in their jurisdictions.
With respect to net neutrality, and in February 2015, there was a major victory – in favour of the principle – when the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued an important ruling to maintain an Open Internet. Further, in the ruling, the FCC classified the Internet as a utility; hence it would be subject to regulatory oversight, with the requisite controls introduced (as needed) to limit abuse by Internet network operators and service providers.
However, last week, and with the recent change in political leadership in the US, several media outlets have reported that the incoming FCC Chairman, Mr Ajit Pai, intends to dismantle the current net neutrality rules and regulatory posture, and adopt a more arms-length/light-handed regulatory approach. The vote by the FCC to formally begin the repeal process has been scheduled for 18 May 2017.
As expected, last week’s announcement has reignited the debate in US, with proponents and opponents of net neutrality readying themselves for the battle that is to come. However, it is already anticipated that there is sufficient support among the FCC Commissioners, primarily based on political affiliation, for the vote in the next two weeks to be in favour of rolling back net neutrality.
Again, what does this all mean for us in the Caribbean?
For those who have been following the net neutrality debate, the main opponents to that principle have been telecoms firms and Internet service providers. Essentially, they argue that net neutrality undermines the continued development of the Internet, by, among other things, not allowing them to: secure more attractive returns on their investment, invest in innovation, and to continually maintain and improve their networks.
Similar arguments have been made by Caribbean telcos, especially Digicel, which has been the most vocal, and essentially, has been advocating for a softer (more light-handed) approach to net neutrality (Source: Digicel Group). On the other hand and generally across the region, Caribbean regulators have sought to adopt a more hardline approach on the issue.
However, the anticipated dismantling of the current net neutrality rules in the US, is likely to strengthen Digicel’s (and by extension Caribbean telcos’) position on the matter. Unfortunately, the regulatory stance in many countries is expected to be severely weakened, as many of them do not have clear and explicit policies and laws that foster net neutrality.
As we have highlighted in previous articles, the regulatory frameworks in several Caribbean countries are outdated and do not address crucial issues, particularly regarding the Internet and ICTs, which have emerged over the past 10-plus years. Most of those frameworks were designed to regulate voice services. Hence, with limited support in law, the approach regulators and policymakers have been adopted to address Internet and ICT-related issues tends to include negotiating with the telcos, and using moral suasion, based on political and/or consumer objections.
It is also important to highlight that should net neutrality be rolled back in the US, Caribbean Internet Service Providers and by extension we, consumers, could be affected, as virtually all of the region’s Internet traffic is routed to the US. Hence, if US carriers, with which our regional telcos have a relationship, decide to charge the latter more for handling traffic from the Caribbean (for example), that increase may need to be reflected in the rates we pay. Alternatively, the fees payable could remain the same, but instead, we experience slower upload and download speeds.
In summary, the region ought to be prepared for the fact that we are unlikely to emerge unscathed if US Internet carriers are allowed to discriminate how, by whom, or for what purposes, the Internet is accessed. However, it still remains to be seen what the final outcome in the US will be.
Image credit: Utah Department of Transportation (flickr)