After Net Neutrality: How to Prepare for the Internet’s New Reality

Opinion

The federal net neutrality regulation, which had guaranteed equal access to the Internet for data from all sources, is officially repealed. There are no longer federal rules ensuring that all Internet traffic must be treated equally, and no FCC protections to stop Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from engaging in blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization of content.

The Web won’t change overnight, but over time we’ll start seeing subtle signs of net neutrality’s demise that will gradually make a more pronounced impact on our daily digital lives. We’re in the early days of a new reality. For everyday Internet users, and for creators of the apps and websites they visit, there are three factors to consider: the good news, the bad news, and what you can do to prepare for a world without net neutrality.

The good news is that, for users, your favorite websites will load just as quickly as they always have, and possibly even faster…for now. Companies like Facebook and Google have the money to pay for expedited access to their popular apps and services. Streaming services like Netflix, which use up massive amounts of bandwidth, can invest in high-priority ISP traffic options to keep shows and movies loading quickly.

There’s more good news, and it may slow the march down the toll road to the cordoned-off web. There are still efforts being made to preserve net neutrality protections. In May, the U.S. Senate approved a bipartisan resolution to restore the FCC rules, though a bill has not yet been voted on by the House of Representatives. In the absence of federal action, some states are taking net neutrality into their own hands. Washington state has already passed a net neutrality law, and lawmakers in California and New York have also introduced bills to continue the fight for an open Internet.

The most consequential development on this front has come in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown signed the nation’s toughest net neutrality bill into law. It also triggered immediate action from the federal government. Just hours after the law was enacted, the Justice Department sued California to stop it, calling the law illegal. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai both released statements in support of the lawsuit.

In New York, lawmakers introduced a bill in May but it has yet to be voted on.

On a more coordinated and cooperative level, the Attorneys General representing 22 states including California and New York filed a new brief in an ongoing lawsuit to restore net neutrality protections. Tech companies including Etsy, Mozilla, and Vimeo have also backed legal challenges to overturn the FCC’s decision.

There is some cause for hope, but website developers still need to prepare for the possibility that net neutrality is gone and won’t be coming back. This brings us to the bad news.

The Next Wave of Innovation Hits a Paywall

Up to this point, the Internet’s natural innovation cycle has given a new startup or a talented developer the opportunity to build something disruptive and grow it organically. On a Web without net neutrality, that next big app may not have the same chance.

As consumers, we may not feel the loss of net neutrality until we want to try something new. Let’s say you decide you don’t like your current social media site or video streaming service, and want to check out a cool new app. The bad news is, the new app may not be able to pay the Internet “toll” to get priority speed. So while you hate the old website and it doesn’t have the cool features of the new app, you’ll be stuck choosing between a stagnant experience and slow performance.

In an Internet of fast lanes, it’s innovation that suffers. Imagine a six-lane highway where five lanes are taken up by paying priority traffic. Everyone else is stuck in that single slow lane. If six different streaming services try to compete with Netflix, they may have better apps and better content, but Netflix would still have that dedicated high-performance lane. Tired of Netflix? Get ready to deal with buffering and pauses if you switch.

Ultimately, this leads to less choice. Look at how decreased competition has played out as the airline industry has consolidated. Where once there may have been a dozen different airline choices to fly directly from Miami to San Francisco, now you’re stuck with only a few options. Airlines can fly the smallest, fully booked plane with the least available baggage allowance and amenities because you simply don’t have a better option. The more competitive an industry is, the better service you get. Without net neutrality, the onus is on the upstart websites and smaller web companies to maintain performance using every tool at their disposal to stay competitive.

The New Performance Barometer

The new barometer is simple: does your website load as quickly as Facebook, Google, and the rest of the apps at the top of the charts?

Seconds or even milliseconds can make the difference between a user browsing your site or closing the tab and going somewhere else. It’s already difficult for large enterprises and newer tech companies to compete without the engineering staffs or massive data centers of Silicon Valley tech giants. The challenge becomes exponentially more difficult if your traffic is deprioritized to boot.

The best defense websites have against fast lanes and ISP tolls is their own application infrastructure. Prepare your business by building web applications that can scale. This means the ability not only to support more widespread use over time, but also to make sure your e-commerce website, for instance, doesn’t crash or slow to a crawl when thousands or even millions of people are using the app at once during an event like Black Friday.

There are a slew of tips and tools that website developers and engineers can employ to optimize their site’s user experience and keep the site running fast and responsively, even if the data is traveling on an internet slow lane. We’re going to focus on explaining three simple techniques—caching, load balancing, and content delivery networks (CDNs). They can help you deliver high front-end performance and make the most of the website resources at your disposal.

The challenge of operating without net neutrality is finding a unique way to deliver your content with a limited amount of control over the bandwidth, meaning the rate at which data is traveling over an Internet connection. This starts with controlling the size of the packets of data coming in and out of your website. Think of packets like a delivery payload on a cargo plane. The heavier the payload, the slower and lower the plane will fly. This is why when you send multimedia files such as images and videos, which contain a lot of data, your email application will often compress them for faster delivery. There are numerous tools an application can employ to keep that plane flying smoothly, often by improving the way data packets are processed on a website.

One of these tools is called caching. To load a web page quickly enough to satisfy users, companies can … Next Page »

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Gus Robertson is the Chief Executive Officer of San Francisco-based NGINX, which offers a suite of technologies for developing and delivering modern Web applications. Follow @gusrobertson

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