Your internet service was just reclassified in an interesting way

This is something which took place more than a week ago, but it was easy to miss in all of the election and terrorism news. According to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, your internet service is now essentially on par with with the supply of electricity or water flowing into your home. While not generally invoking the phrase “net neutrality” in many cases, the court has ruled that internet access is a necessity on par with water, phone service and power, and providers can’t set up different classes of service for different fees. (Route Fifty)

If you like binge-watching Netflix, streaming audio, or online gaming, then you should be celebrating this week. And if your business depends on reaching a wide audience online, you should join in. A federal appeals court decision on June 14 means your internet service provider can’t slow down your access to particular sites, nor let others pay to be in a faster lane of service. It all comes down to the principle called net neutrality.

The court upheld the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules governing companies that deliver internet service to US homes and businesses. At the heart of the case was the Federal Communications Commission’s February 2015 Open Internet Order. It requires that everyone—whether they are individuals, small businesses, or large corporations—must have equal access to the whole internet, just like everyone has equal access to the telephone network.

That sunny report sounds great if you happen to be a fan of net neutrality, but it ignores a few underlying realities. I would begin with the question of whether or not internet access is actually a “necessity” in the same way we treat water and electricity. Is it? Well, I couldn’t do my job without it, that’s for sure. But there are still people in my neighborhood with no internet service. And I’m old enough to remember when I didn’t have it either. Compare that to water. If you go very long without clean, potable water you’re going to die. While most of us could certainly use far less water than we do (and we probably should) there is a bare minimum amount that you need just to survive. Losing your access to Netflix streaming isn’t going to kill you quite as fast.

But what does this mean in practical terms? There’s obviously the benefit of equal access to services for not just individuals but businesses large and small. That represents more choices for consumers without paying a premium, which is easy to see as a plus. But on the back end, somebody always has to pay for providing that access. In the long run, as we’ve discussed before, prices are going to go up. But my attitude toward that reality has changed a bit over the years because prices continue to go up anyway. What this resolution doesn’t address is the need for more competition in the internet service provider market. We’re still seeing more and more consolidation and mergers in that industry rather than new companies popping up and thriving in a competitive environment. Without competition, prices rise and the quality of service suffers. Absent some heavy handed regimen of government regulation (which never works out in the end) there is no solution on the horizon.

But hey… you’ll still be able to watch the final seasons of Game of Thrones, so it’s all good.