It's time to pull the net neutrality debate down from the ethers.
As the comment period at the Federal Communications Commission winds down by September 15, the commission is expected to issue a new set of rules that could drastically change the way business is conducted over the Internet. Among the changes it's considering is a two-tiered Internet, where cable companies and telecommunications companies that serve as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) could set faster or slower access speeds, charging businesses and consumers accordingly.
This is not just an idle debate being waged by bureaucrats, big cable companies and content providers over who gets to control upload and download speeds. Every company that depends on the Web has something at stake. That includes just about every new Silicon Valley startup as well as all the millions of other possibly less glamorous mom and pops that buy and sell over the Web.
The potential consequences were brought home to me by the impassioned opinion piece for Wired on Thursday, by Etsy chief executive Chad Dickerson, where he includes a call to action to all businesses with a Web presence on September 10, and lays out what the end of net neutrality would mean for his business and the businesses that depend on Etsy. Writes Dickerson:
This proposal has alarmed the Etsy community and employees. One seller, Beth in Oregon, said 'If internet users find it too difficult to load our websites and see our products, it will be impossible for us to grow or succeed.' The FCC proposal threatens any business that relies on the Internet to reach consumers, stream video, process payments, advertise services or products, speak their minds, or do just about anything else. It therefore demands my time, as it should yours.
Just what does Dickerson mean by that? It turns out even small delays in download speeds can mean a pretty significant drop off in your customer base. Research conducted in 2009 by Microsoft, Google, and AOL shows that small, nearly unnoticeable decreases in download speeds can negatively impact your bottom line.
Further, a Microsoft researcher in 2009 found that every two-second slowdown resulted in a user drop off of 2 percent, and a revenue decrease of more than 4 percent for Bing. Similarly, Google found just a 400 milisecond delay resulted in a 0.6 percent drop off in searches, and in the long term such users transacted 0.2 percent fewer searches. AOL also found that page views drop off significantly as load times increase.
Download speeds can make or break startups like Inc. 5000 company Apartmentlist.com. The company depends on serving customers rich media experiences, including high-resolution tours of its apartment rentals somewhat akin to the way Google Street View shows outside spaces, as quickly as possible. Additionally, it's venturing into video as a component of its services. Allowing ISPs to create fast and slow lanes could be problematic for the business, says Chris Herndon, Apartmentlist.com's president and co-founder.
"Fast loading speeds are critical for our customers to have a delightful experience," Herndon says. "If a competitor with deeper pockets was able to strike a deal with an ISP for preferred access or speed, this would impact our experience relative to theirs."
So far, the FTC has received more than 1 million comments on net neutrality. As Tech Crunch reports, less than 1 percent of those comments favored ending net neutrality.
Nevertheless, entrepreneurs largely say they are troubled by what seems like a failure of political will to stop net neutrality from being overturned. Just ask Stanislav Shalunov, chief technology officer and co-founder of mesh networking application provider Open Garden, based in San Francisco.
"No branch of government is standing up for Net Neutrality like it should," says Shalunov, adding that technology like mesh networking, which allows users to share their connectivity through mobile devices, could make conversations about an open Internet somewhat obsolete.