Trends in entertainment like the rise of Netflix and Spotify, and the increasing popularity of the smart home mean that broadband internet is integral to your customers’ daily lives. Not only is the home network and media panel a vital part of family life, but the debate around net neutrality is relevant to more people than ever before.

Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally. That means your customers’ download speeds should be the same regardless of how they are using the internet. When we last touched on this topic in 2014, there were no clear guidelines around net neutrality. A lot has happened since then, and yet net neutrality is still up for debate.

To understand why net neutrality is a hot topic, consider the practices that could put it at risk. These include blocking or throttling data, creating fast lanes, and a practice known as zero rating or differential pricing.

Blocking data generally takes the form of refusing access to certain websites. Data throttling, also known as bandwidth throttling, occurs when an internet service provider (ISP) intentionally slows down the data transmission from certain sites.

Fast lanes and zero rating are similar in that they both give preferential treatment to certain data. Zero rating refers to the practice of allowing customers to use content services without that data going toward their data cap. Differential pricing is similar to zero rating, but this term also covers charging consumers different rates for different internet uses.

The Debate: Freedom versus market demand

The arguments in favor of net neutrality are that it promotes innovation and supports consumer freedom. Those opposed to net neutrality argue that internet access and services should be determined by the market.

The Debaters: ISPs, content providers, consumer advocates

The players in both the US and Canada consist of ISPs, content providers, consumer advocacy groups, and regulatory agencies.

For ISPs, enforcing net neutrality restricts their ability to offer special deals or to promote their own or their partners’ content. Content providers have a stake in the conversation because they count on ISPs to provide access to their services.

Consumer advocacy groups like Canada’s Open Media work on raising awareness about net neutrality as well as exerting pressure on regulatory bodies. In Canada, ISPs are regulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), and in the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates ISPs.

The Debate Details

The tangle of net neutrality viewpoints is more complex than simply three stakeholder groups. While many ISPs argue that net neutrality regulations hinder their ability to provide affordable services to their customers, others such as Rogers in Canada and Verizon in the US support net neutrality.

Content providers generally support net neutrality because they want consumers to easily find their content. But content providers like Google are providing infrastructure and ISPs are creating content, so the voices in the debate have complex needs and motives.

In February 2016, the FCC introduced the Open Internet Order which protects net neutrality, and in December of 2016, the CRTC declared broadband internet to be an essential service, but neither of these events means the issue is settled.

In Canada, the interpretation of regulations has allowed some differential pricing. Quebec’s Videotron has been allowed to provide their customers with zero-rating for certain music streaming apps, though the CRTC is reviewing this decision. In the US, many advocates believe that net neutrality regulations may be altered or overturned by the new administration.

The debate is likely to continue to evolve as technology and business models change. Net neutrality is an important issue to understand, but it is equally as important to acknowledge that ISPs, content providers and consumers have made some incredible things happen online over the years that this subject has remained up for debate.