It was hardly a surprise, but this week Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai made it all but official: He announced a plan to scrap Obama-era net neutrality rules.
Since Republicans hold a 3-2 edge at the FCC, Pai’s plan is virtually certain to pass — despite lobbying efforts and court challenges from just about every internet constituency apart from big internet service providers (ISPs). “The Restoring Internet Freedom Order,” as it’s cynically called, will very likely upend the current rules classifying internet service as a public utility and prohibiting carriers from slowing or blocking certain types of traffic.
Most of the commentary so far has centered on possible blockages of fast access to consumer services such as Netflix, or higher ISP prices to ensure unfettered access to popular online content. But the looming end of net neutrality is likely to have far more pervasive effects than a jittery picture when streaming old episodes of Breaking Bad.
The IoT thrived under net neutrality
One of the biggest questions, in fact, is what effect the sunset of net neutrality provisions will have on the Internet of Things (IoT). My initial analysis suggests that the effects could be significant, but will take time to shake out.
We’ve never really lived in a world with no net neutrality rules, so ISPs and enterprises will be feeling their way around the new landscape. But there are already concerns about how the end of net neutrality could affect the IoT.
Blocking and throttling internet traffic
First of all, if carriers can block, throttle, or delay traffic at their discretion, they could very easily decide to impede IoT traffic in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. Unless, perhaps, users paid a premium for fast, timely deliver of their IoT data or agreed to buy IoT devices only from the carrier or its approved partners. In areas where a carrier held a monopoly on internet access, it could pretty much dictate terms.
I haven’t yet heard of any plans to do such noxious things, but it’s hard to put anything past these companies. They’re some of the most disliked companies in America, and they’re under pressure to justify their huge network investments. What do you really expect them to do … let a potential gold mine just sit there?
Effects on enterprise users and small businesses
Attempts to leverage the new rules might not have be so blatant, though. A carrier might simply tell a company like GE that if it wants guaranteed prompt delivery of the data from its industrial IoT devices, it will have to upgrade to a higher — read, more expensive — tier of service to ensure the required service levels.
Given the high stakes, a company the size of GE might be willing go along. But smaller businesses — especially those upstart IoT startups with the cool new ideas might — not be able to afford to pay the freight for premium net access. So, the data from its IoT devices might not be delivered for analysis in a timely fashion … or at all. For enterprise IoT users, the initial effect is likely to be higher costs to ensure access and greater uncertainty about the best ways to connect IoT devices.
The IoT, like the net as a whole, runs on the free exchange of data. That freedom might not disapper immediately upon the death of net neutrality, but this week’s FCC actions certainly makes it more likely to erode over time.