It's a pretty sure bet that soon net neutrality will cease being the law of the land for at least the next four to eight years if not forever. While ISPs give the impression that it's only big bandwidth users -- companies streaming movies, music or handling VoIP calls -- that will be affected, that won't necessarily be the case. The effect of a wholesale elimination of net neutrality would, in effect, be a deregulation that would hand providers the ability to throttle traffic at will.
There are some who are questioning whether this should be a concern to those in the burgeoning Internet of Things market. At first glance, it would seem not. After all, most IoT devices produce only spoonfuls of data compared with the buckets associated with Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime. The trouble is, IoT generally requires low latency. In many cases, a delay of seconds becomes problematic and one of minutes becomes game ending. Therein lies the rub. The ISPs might see this as a potential new revenue stream.
In a not-so-funny passage from a humor infused oped posted in early May on Network World, Deepak Puri painted a picture of the IoT landscape in 2020, three years after the demise of net neutrality.
"The new regulations split the IoT industry into the haves and the have-nots," he wrote. "Larger IoT firms flourished, as they could pay the higher access fees to connect their sensors to the cloud. Startups that couldn’t afford the higher fees struggled to survive. VC funding to new IoT startups dried to a trickle. Sales of the carrier’s own IoT services soared because they didn’t have to pay the higher access fees. IoT services from large firms became 'more' equal."
Some think this might not hit far from the truth. In his last planned speech before leaving his post as FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler expressed concerns over the effects the Trump administration's planned dismantling of net neutrality might have on IoT. "[T]he growth of the internet of things is another area that depends on the open connectivity of those things," he said. "If ISPs can decide arbitrarily which IoT device can be connected, or favor their own IoT activity over their competitors, the bright future of IoT dims."
Wheeler should understand the collective mindset of the ISPs. Before coming aboard at the FCC, he was a venture capitalist and lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry and had been President of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.
These days, he's a member of the board at the IoT company Actility, and he's evidently still concerned. In an article published last week on Wired, he's quoted as saying, "Latency, as computers are talking to computers, becomes a very important thing. The question becomes whether there will be different levels of service, will there be paid prioritization?"
If so, that could give added advantage to established IoT-based companies with with deep pockets when marketing products requiring data to travel the first or last miles across the public Internet.
"The future could end up being controlled by four companies," he said. "That's why open networks are important."
Again, ISPs deny that any such plans are in the works. On May 17, the day before the FCC was to consider current FCC chairman Ajit Pai's "Restoring Internet Freedom" plan to overturn the Internet's Title II classification and net neutrality rules, the NCTA -- broadband and pay TV's principle trade association in the U.S. -- took out a full page ad in the Washington Post to assure the public (and presumably the FCC) that their interests in ending net neutrality are benign.
"An open Internet means that we do not block, throttle or otherwise impair your online activity," the ad read. "We firmly stand by that commitment because it is good for our customers and good for our business."
Although the ad didn't mention IoT specifically, someone -- presumably the NCTA -- has taken out a Google text ad with the title "The truth about net neutrality - Where do ISPs stand?" that shows up in search results and links to a page on the NCTA website introducing the Post ad.
Some tech writers are giving the ISPs the benefit of the doubt, citing the low amount of traffic individual IoT devices generate and expressing doubts that the dismantling of net neutrality will be deep enough to do away with all restrictions. This point was made last August, before Trump's election, by Nathan Rockershousen:
"It is safe to say the IoT will generally be unaffected by the issue of net neutrality," he wrote. "The ability to freely use the Internet is something that is coveted by most Internet users, thus it is unlikely that there will be any successful dismantling of the Communications Act. Even in the improbable event that ISPs were given the power to control the Internet, there wouldn’t be any dramatic impacts for the IoT. This is due to the fact that these networks of devices are not consuming bandwidth in quantities even remotely close to that of companies like Netflix."
On the flip side of the coin is TechCrunch, a website that earns its keep by expecting the worst from big business, which thinks a move by broadband providers to regulate the movement of IoT data through their pipes is inevitable.
"We've already watched these very same companies block mobile payment companies they didn't want to compete with," Karl Bode wrote on Friday. "And we've watched as they've fought tooth and nail to prevent consumers from being able to buy and use the cable boxes of their choice. Why wouldn't these giant ISPs press their advantage after spending millions in lobbying?"
However, even TechCrunch thinks ISPs will exercise some restraint and won't attempt to monetize IoT immediately: "To be clear, even if the FCC does kill net neutrality rules later this year, large ISPs likely won't engage in this behavior right away."
My Magic 8-Ball says, "Wait and see."