Net Neutrality gives startups and small businesses an even playing field

By Laura Haight
Originally published as The Digital Maven in Upstate Business Journal, March 12, 2015

Just trying to explain net neutrality makes my head hurt. And worse, everyone’s eyes glaze over in that look that says: “Please stop torturing me!”

Exactly one year ago, in this column I talked about the importance of net neutrality and its role in maintaining an equal and open society with unfettered access to information. Last month, the FCC did the right thing and upheld net neutrality, fighting back a big business lobby.

The propaganda campaign hauled out the same, tired song: government overreach, unnecessary restriction, the Obama-net. But in reality the decision is one that strongly benefits business — your business. Especially if you are a startup or a small business, relying — as so many of us do — on the Internet, social media and mobile apps to reach your audience.

Here’s how.

Innovation and creativity are exciting — and hard pressed for cash. A Google search for “app developer Greenville SC” produced 153,000 results. Let’s assume there’s a lot of duplication and only 25 percent are actual businesses or individuals. Then there are only 38,000 app developers in the area. What would happen if those companies developing new health technology apps to streamline collaboration and consultation, or home automation systems, or just the next big game had to pay fees to ISPs like Verizon, AT&T or Charter in order to ensure their data would get a priority ride on the information superhighway? Apps with delays, data loss, freezes, dropped connections are losers. How many new tech businesses would be nothing more than a USB key tossed in a drawer if the access to the very backbone itself had been in someone else’s control?

How important is internet access, speed, reliability to your company? According to the Pew Research Institute, 94 percent of all workers use the Internet. The top tools for all workers: Email and online access. In fact, since the Internet went mainstream in the early ‘80s, small businesses have grown by 49 percent. Many of them are fueled by access to markets and social media made possible by the equal playing Internet’s equal playing field.

One could argue that the entire contingent workforce — made up of freelancers, independent contractors and single-owner proprietorships — that has grown exponentially since the recession is fueled in large part by internet access. Contingent workers with skills that traverse geographic boundaries are able to find customers and markets that were not accessible just a decade ago. If designers, writers, web developers and app creators were faced with a “pay-to-play” situation, many would be quickly priced out of business.

Critics of the FCC decision say these are worst-case scenarios, unlikely to happen. And yet so long as the capability is there, some will test it. If they’re successful, others will follow. And the potential certainly exists for the Internet to become yet another “get” for the haves and wistful hope for the have-nots.

Now that the FCC has put this to rest, perhaps we can focus on a real issue: the sorry state of broadband speed and accessibility in the US. According to the NetIndex, a data report developed by Ookla based on 50 million global speedtests each month, the US is 27th in the world in broadband speed. Who’s better than us? Macau, Lithuania, Moldova, Iceland, Estonia, Bulgaria and Hungary. And I didn’t even mention all the Asians and Nords.

Now there’s something we could be working on.