The Death of Net Neutrality Threatens the IoT Future
Last December, after a long and contentious debate, the FCC voted on party lines to repeal net neutrality rules that had been in effect since June of 2015. On April 23rd, the FCC’s repeal of those rules will officially go into effect. It remains to be seen exactly what effects the repeal will have on the sprawling internet ecosystem, but developers of IoT devices may have good reason to be concerned.
The reason for their concern boils down to one simple concept: data. By 2020, industry analysts expect that there will be over 20 billion IoT devices in use worldwide, and they’re going to be generating a tsunami of data traffic across the internet. On the surface, it would seem that individual IoT developers would never generate enough traffic to earn the attention of cable providers. Most remained unconcerned.
Then Comcast announced their acquisition of Stringify and integrated it into their X1 platform. Just like that, Comcast was in the IoT business. That means that IoT devices and businesses may be in line to receive some heavy-handed treatment in the future.
A History of Abuse
So far, large telecom providers have shown little interest in targeting IoT devices, but they have a checkered history of employing punitive actions to support their own interests. Prior to the regulations passing in 2015, there were a number of instances of abusive tactics, including:
- Comcast intentionally corrupting BitTorrent traffic on their network
- AT&T demanded that Apple take action to block VoIP services on the iPhone
- Windstream Communications hijacked user search queries to force traffic to their own portal
These are only a few of the examples of common net neutrality violations, but in truth, they’re almost too numerous to list. Most of them were reactions to specific internet traffic that the ISP didn’t like or was in direct competition with, but the IoT category faces a different, more generalized threat.
The internet, as its name would suggest, is comprised of a series of interconnected networks that carry data traffic all over the globe. Just like a highway system though, there are bound to be traffic jams. Most of them occur at interconnection points, or the parts of each network that connect to those owned by other companies. They’re like on and off ramps, and they’re something of a lawless border zone without much in the way of regulation.
As IoT devices begin to flood ISP networks with traffic, they’ll have to upgrade their hardware at these connection points in order to maintain efficient data flows. The problem is, there’s no system that requires them to do so, and most aren’t keen to spend the money without seeking reimbursement in some way. That means ISPs may be tempted to impose per-device fees on end users or to simply throttle protocols associated with IoT devices to avoid costly upgrades. Either outcome would stifle innovation in the IoT market.
A Better Way
Without direct regulatory intervention to prevent ISPs from acting to restrict traffic from IoT devices, there’s only one sure way that end-users can defuse the potential issues. Their path runs straight through municipal broadband. In such a setup, each local municipality builds and operates its own ISP, thus circumventing the incumbent providers. There has been a wave of interest in the idea throughout the US in recent months that shows no signs of slowing. It’s also a concept that’s already in use all across Europe, and even in Australia, where the National Broadband Network (NBN) provides internet access through tiered NBN plans available nationwide.
An Uncertain Future
When the FCC’s net neutrality repeal becomes a reality, IoT innovators will be paying careful attention. There are already signs that an array of advocacy groups, state attorneys general, and internet heavy hitters are lining up to sue the FCC to save net neutrality. Their challenges guarantee that the public-at-large won’t know the final fate of the internet in the near term. The only thing that is certain is that the leaders of the IoT revolution would do well to join the fight, or get behind local governments that are trying to throw off the chains of their local ISPs altogether.