Startup innovation requires net neutrality

Craig Walker is the CEO and co-founder of Switch Communications.

Millions of people have weighed in on net neutrality since it was first raised. The voices you’ve likely heard from most often are those of the major players in this debate: Comcast and AT&T on one side and major tech companies like Google and Netflix on the other. What you may have heard less about is how undoing net neutrality will affect the little guys, the startups and small businesses who will hopefully be the innovators and industry leaders of tomorrow.

Net neutrality is key to enabling innovation today that will drive our economy tomorrow. Getting it wrong now will have long term consequences to innovation that we’ll never undo.

Just think what life would be like if the Supreme Court had voted 5-4 the other way in the case of Sony vs. Universal Studios, which allowed people to record television shows. Had they not gotten it right — and they just barely did — there would be no DVRs, no Tivo, and no ability to watch a football game that’s already over. Or think what would have happened if AT&T was allowed to prevent others from making equipment that could work on its network. It wasn’t until 1968 that the courts finally overturned this rule. That decision led to fax machines, modems, voice mail and many other innovations making their way to users without having to wait for AT&T to roll them out. Clearly, getting policies right is critically important.

So what is net neutrality and why is it so important?  In a nutshell, net neutrality says that every bit of information delivered over the Internet is treated the same.  Whether it’s sent from Comcast or a small business down the street, they’ll all be treated the same.

Sounds simple enough, so why is this a big deal?  The concept of net neutrality has allowed companies like Yahoo, Google and Skype to appear out of nowhere and now become ubiquitous by being able to compete on the quality of their services, and not on the speed that an Internet service provider (or ISP, like Comcast or AT&T) would allow them to be delivered.

What would that be like?  Let’s say your ISP offered a search engine that competed with Google. Without net neutrality, your ISP wouldn’t have to treat every bit of information the same.  What would happen if every time you used your ISP’s search engine you got an answer immediately, but when you searched on Google, you saw a spinning dial while “it was thinking” and eventually 10 seconds later got a search result.  You’d use the faster one, right?  Same with streaming video: would you wait an hour for a movie to load from Netflix when you could watch it instantly from AT&T’s U-verse?  Of course not.

My company builds next generation communications products that use the Internet in part to deliver the service.  Our conferencing product, UberConference, actually gives you a Web page to see what’s happening on your conference call, so you can see who just dialed into the call, who is talking and a host of other features.  This wouldn’t work at all if the ISP was able to slow down UberConference so that the actions on the screen weren’t in sync with the real-time actions on the phone.  If there were no net neutrality, and the ISP offered a competing conferencing service, there would be immense incentive for that ISP to degrade the UberConference experience to get a competitive advantage.

The same is true in voice communications on your cell phone.  Cell carriers don’t like having to maintain both a voice network and a data network. The data network is what allows you to watch YouTube on your phone.  It’s expensive, duplicative and ultimately bad for business.  As such, they are now planning to move all of their voice services to their data networks.  Verizon calls this VoLTE.

What would happen if Verizon were allowed to treat some types of data on their network better than others?  What if Verizon’s VoLTE service sounded and performed way better than Skype or Vonage running on the same data network?  It wouldn’t take too many terrible phone calls on the downgraded service before you stopped using it.  This is what scares me.

In 2006, Vonage customers noticed a significant drop in the quality of their calls when they were using Comcast as their ISP.  Interestingly, Comcast offered a competing product called Digital Voice that was directly competitive with Vonage.  Coincidence?

Net neutrality has served as a key element in the growth of the Internet. I do not believe that changing this access is in any way beneficial to our economy. I’m going to offer what may strike some as surprising advice from a startup founder: preserve the status quo.

Net neutrality has fostered the rise of countless innovative products and services over the Internet, and allowed for the creation of immense companies to appear from the minds of brilliant young engineers with big dreams.  It is crucial to all of us that this environment remain intact.  Our future innovations depend on it.

Follow Craig on Twitter: @cwalker123 

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