The IoT was largely built during a period of guaranteed equal access to connectivity. What would happen to it if the FCC repeals "net neutrality" regulations?

In case you missed it, the FCC has recently announced it has submitted a proposal to repeal net neutrality laws, which forced ISPs in the US to treat all Internet traffic equally. The repeal of these regulations means that providers could now discriminate Internet traffic and impose limitations (or favoritism) based on what kind of data is being accessed.

Regardless of how one might feel about the importance of net neutrality, there are pragmatic implications for those in a domain that relies heavily on Internet access: the Internet of Things. 

After all, this very subject was commented on by outgoing FCC Chair, Tom Wheeler, in January 2017, the guy largely responsible for putting net neutrality regulations in place to begin with:

“The growth of the Internet of Things is another area that depends on the open connectivity of those things. 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”.

What does repealing net neutrality rules mean for the future of this industry?


A Brief History of the Digital Era and the IoT Explosion

The Internet is a prime example of what one might call a disruptive technology. The prototypical emergence of the Internet was ARPANET, developed in the 1960s for use on computers for the US Department of Defense based on packet switching technology. In 1983, ARPANET began using the TCP/IP protocol and would evolve over the next 30 years to become the Internet we know today.  

There are very few facets of modern life that remain untouched by the Internet. The impact of the Internet on the quality of life in the modern era is so drastic that the United Nations released a declaration in 2016 stating that Internet access is a basic human right in the sense that it provides innovative and economic benefits (including education, healthcare, employment, etc). Being excluded from the Internet is not so much about not being able to share your photos on social media, but is more about the value the resources it can bring to improve communities.

Even with how deeply ingrained it is in modern society, we are still seeing the boundaries of how the Internet is used pushed even further. The explosion of the Internet of Things has been rapid and its presence can easily go unnoticed as we now take for granted that nearly everything we use—wearable devices, handheld devices, cars, even kitchen appliances—now connects to the Internet. 

The IoT explosion can certainly be owed to computing systems becoming smaller, more energy efficient, more computationally effective, and can take advantage of network access to send and receive data in near real-time. As Wheeler put it in his final address as Chairman of the FCC:

“The revolution comes with the next step in the internet: harnessing that connectivity to productive activities.” — Tom Wheeler, Former FCC Chair

The IoT has arguably been one way that the internet has been "harnessed" to productive activities, though not everyone would agree with that assessment. What's undeniable, however, is the increase in efficiencies developed by those who found use in the IoT explosion. For example, the development of IoT wearables and the increase of server farms to process data gathered from them necessitated a push for smaller electronics form factors, more efficient power systems, and better data storage. Many industries have benefitted from this rising tide as large corporations rushed to invest in the IoT.


Net Neutrality in the USA

The discussion on net neutrality in the US is not a new one, with ISPs regularly pushing back on it. 

In 2010, the FCC adopted the first regulation on Internet access that prevents ISPs from imposing any sort of limits or blocking Internet traffic. Shortly after, Verizon Communications filed a lawsuit and the federal appeals court struck down the FCC’s regulation.

In 2014, the FCC opened comments to the public on Internet regulation and received over 4 million responses. This marks the most responses the FCC has received on a topic to date. 

In 2015, the FCC voted for strong net neutrality rules under Chairman Tom Wheeler, and in mid-2016 the federal court of appeals upheld the ruling. This was hailed by its proponents as recognition that net neutrality is an essential element for economic growth and innovation in the US.

In 2016, Wheeler was replaced by the current chair of the FCC, Ajit Pai, when President Donald Trump took office.

And now we come to 2017 when Pai yesterday submitted an official proposal to repeal the net neutrality laws. A vote is expected to be made (and likely approved) on December 14. 

Pai’s rationale is that the current rules are burdensome regulations that have decreased investments into broadband infrastructure and micromanaged the Internet. In a hearing in April, he referred to the public reaction to the repealing of net neutrality rules as “hysterical prophecies of doom”—a succinct opposition to those who have touted net neutrality as pivotal for the continuing growth of the IoT.


A Toll Booth on the Internet Super Highway to Innovation?

Right now, ISPs currently charge a flat rate based on the amount of data used and the speed at which it is accessed. These fees have nothing to do with the type of data being accessed and does not limit how many, or which, devices are used to connect to the Internet. This has been part of what makes IoT accessible for hobbyists, academics, and businesses.

One of the most obvious potential changes that the acidification of net neutrality has on IoT is that ISPs could discriminate against which devices are connected to its network and how that device is using its connection. This could elevate the control to ISPs over how the IoT is used.

There are many theoretical pricing schemes that could be imposed, such as having to pay separate fees to access the Internet using your laptop/desktop computer, mobile phones, tablets, and for other miscellaneous devices. Or perhaps you could end up paying a flat rate for accessing social media, but require a separate price plan for IoT devices. Such pricing schemes are already existent in countries like Portugal and Spain.



Companies in Portugal and Spain are examples of how Internet access has been separated by content packages. Images courtesy of Vodafone Spain (top) and MEO (bottom).


Large companies could also strike deals with ISPs to get more exclusive or higher priority access for its devices. ISPs could also roll out their own IoT services, locking consumers into having to use their device to have the seamless, real-time service that is currently taken for granted. Competitors could be imposed with high access fees to prevent them from overtaking the ISP's products.

If such steps were taken by ISPs, it could effectively kill the rapidly evolving innovation happening in the US IoT space. Suddenly this connectivity would not only become costly but impractical. The most impacted would be hobbyists, startups, and small companies. As many of you know, the development of an IoT device is difficult and expensive. The additional burden of paying ISPs to get a device priority connectivity (and, effectively, better usability) could be more than a small developer or startup could shoulder.


Complicating Security

Security in the IoT is also another hot topic that is hard to ignore in the current environment. Like many other tech sector domains, norms and expectations on how to manage IoT security have lagged behind the actual development of the technology. As one of our own AAC readers so aptly put it in a recent comment, "The S in IoT is for security." This wry adage highlights the fact that security has been woefully low on most IoT-related priority lists—for both the public understanding of the IoT and the responsibility of developers to secure the devices they design.

The problem is tangibly real. Unsecured IoT devices have been responsible for some of the largest DDoS attacks in history. More and more sensitive and personal information is at stake, especially as connected medical devices become more common. In response so far, there has been some attention brought to Congress on this issue, with two bills on the topic introduced in 2017.

So what would the repeal of net neutrality theoretically do to the IoT's security situation?

The dawn of traffic-specific fees could act as an additional obstacle when trying to convince users to keep their systems up to date—they may postpone security updates to avoid incurring additional charges. Even worse, there would be nothing to stop critical traffic like security updates from becoming a target for added premiums.

We might also see different types of malicious attacks—ones that focus on the unauthorized use of a target’s Internet service. This would become an added incentive to take advantage of weak IoT security.



It's difficult to truly predict what to expect once net neutrality laws are fully shelved; this article looks at the more bleak aspects (or "hysterical prophecies of doom" as Chairman Pai put it). But the reality is that the IoT has experienced its largest growth in an environment of unchallenged connectivity. Without net neutrality regulations, it's impossible to guarantee the same levels of connectivity that allowed past innovations. In the end, that's the only sure thing that can be said.

As net neutrality opponents have pointed out, we did not see content-based pricing before Wheeler's regulations were put in place. However, without them, the possibility is opened that we will see them sooner than we'd like.


Featured image courtesy of Gerd Altmann.




  • AEKron 2017-11-24

    I used to like computers but I’m finding more and more reasons not to. They’re becoming more of a liability than an asset IMO. This is yet another reason.

  • adx 2017-11-30

    I agree. Relentless advance made sense in the 1960s when it was a real race to the moon. Now the measure of progress seems to be in the desirability of ever more useless trinkets, like the smartwatch that lets you “share fitness result on social networks”, but the one thing it doesn’t do is tell the time. No surprise security misses the bus when that’s the goal. I blame software, it drove the hardware to provide an ever more powerful platform for ever more lazy addition of features devoid of usefulness or cost beyond the initial NRE and the absent support in that very short moment before the device is hurfed into the bin. For me that decline started with Windows 95, where the trinkety commodity computing surface made a break from the underlying computing technology. Now I take solace in its interface (and still even run it on some machines) for some respite from the advancing bleeding edge, that has started to feel more like the cloudy red aftermath of a shark attack than the next great feat of human accomplishment.

  • Timtrewyn 2017-12-01

    The end of net neutrality is the machination of a virtual monopoly and a cynical abuse of the monthly rents of the common user.  The price for this discourtesy should be Congressional authorization for the US Postal Service to establish itself as the public option, a fully capable internet service provider with its own physical, telecommunications infrastructure, guided by the best principles of net neutrality and the general, as opposed to privileged, welfare.  To them, the decent couriers of our nation, shall I send my monthly payment.  The opposing intrigue and lobbying of the incumbents to such a proposal only confirms their remorseless avarice.  Give me internet liberty, or give me darkness!

  • Paul Moore 2017-12-01

    This would throttle consumer freedoms down quite a bit. And the FCC then sets up data pipes for the big guys, like wallstreet. Cryptominers would also get squeezed.
    The Government mantra is ‘The little guy can’t have too many freedoms. They might hurt themselves or others.’ Sounds more and more like skirttail huggers everyday trying to curtail us. Oh but the same government allowed the removal of American indians to enable unfettered travel and free land. Then allowed slaves to build the country’s infrastructure. Slavery became illegal once that was finished and the individual cotton farmers suffered. At the same time they gov setup settler programs to get the masses spread out into the new land. Then the borders were opened to migrants in the early 1900s to expand a work force. Which happen to build the additional railroad spurs into further reaches of the open land. Then the Gov setup grants the railroads to move teachers, doctors, nurses, train employees to incorporate those segments of populus into cohesive government controlled societies. Of course the world engages in wars to expand the populus even further in the uncapitalized reaches. See the pattern? Things are opened up with no regard to the inhabitants, then controls through laws are put in place. Now one needs a license to engage in the previous activity or go to jail(another populus confinement activity). I echo the other posts here.

  • Policy 2017-12-12

    The internet got to where it is today without the need for the government to set regulations on it and lock the status of how things are now in place forever and getting government more involved in how we communicate. NN got passed by Obama in 2015 and fundamentally changed nothing as what the internet is now is what people wanted to purchase. ISP’s are not the internet they are not monopoly except for where the infrastructure technology used requires a physical line be ran to your home where the costs for multiple broadband cable providers each having to invest in their own private lines but only ever having 1 line used at anytime making all others a rather large waste of money. Imaging doing this with gas electricity or water utility lines. The other options would be to have the government own the lines and rent bandwidth to licensed ISP’s who now have no incentive to improve the network they no longer own. This is all just level 3 or the bottom of the what the internet is networked. At&t owns many of the OC-768 ‘Backbone’ networks that connect all regions of the US with plenty of bandwidth for all the 330 million people. You local ISP will be getting you onto these level 2 and 1 networks that interconnect large corporate data-centers, web hosts, and nations. Much of the major backbone for the internet around the world is owned by a European company. The internet is not Comcast, but it might be true that Comcast might be the only one who owns a coaxial network where in recent years they improved on with fiber optics after they purchased the networks from At&T to get you onto what At&t still owns. You have DSL, Satellite, Cellular, Microwave, and Radio network infrastructures with ISP available and probably still some dial-up providers, so this myth of a monopoly is just that, a myth. The internet is a global network of interconnected networks and data centers owned by many thousands of private business, individuals, governments, military, corporations, and tax payers.

    NN is for the current big websites that are slowly taking over the internet and specific kinds of content like HD Streaming video from these sites like Netflix and Hulu and Youtube taking a large part of the total bandwidth just for themselves and with this regulation do not have to invest at all into the network capacity to provide the constantly increasing video resolutions and growing user base while ISP’s with the most constricted and lowest end of the internet that actually gets us normal people on, even if these site profiting on the network the ISP pays for and built becomes saturated with content from 2-3 websites being streamed to 10% of the isp’s customers and slowing downing and causing issues with the other 90% of the users internet functionality. Why should the websites care if some region gets crap internet because the new star wars becomes available in 4k HD and everyone wants to watch it at the same time and so everyone playing low latency games now has 2 seconds of delay for every input, with NN Comcast can’t put QoS in place to deal with issues that they didn’t cause and being caused for a minority of users and will have to spend money it has been wanting to meet halfway in costs at with major websites or it’s service will become crap and it’s users will cancel a failing service that has to be constantly made faster to keep up with code on a single website that has it’s servers sitting on At&t’s continental backbone of a network Comcast doesn’t own. What is really the internet that ISP’s act as a medium for a fee and ISP’s are selling you a connection to the internet and are serving millions of customers the service they want to pay for and it would be suicide for them to enrage 100 million customers by suddenly restricting access to the ones who pay it.

    Government is bad at business, terrible at customer support, and overcharges for everything. Giving the liberty that made the internet back to the internet by getting government out of it and allowing you to tell the businesses with you dollars what it is you want to pay for and that is a connection to the global network that is the internet without restriction. The market will provide to this demand, NN isn’t about the home user, it’s about the content makers vs the networks makers and the networks take vastly more funds and employees to maintain and build then setting up websites and generating insane amounts of profit that almost runs itself and being the reason any slowdown on the internet happens and not require technician everywhere physical network exists.

  • Policy 2017-12-12

    As for the argument about IoT being hindered by a end of NN, have all the ‘makers’ engineers, hackers, and IT’s become blinded to the fact that they own a bit of the internet themselves with the routers, hubs, switches, NaS, or whatever that they admin. The way I see it, IoT if for some reason ISP’s cripple the internet by disabling ‘protocols’ so they couldn’t work would spread faster with devices people everywhere buy that create and entire separate neighbor to neighbor network. ISP’s can’t block the general public from the internet as if it would end, the individual has the knowledge and ability to build a whole new network and the technology exists to do so. A few could organize in towns everyone who wants the internet back to take that monthly bill this did pay before and go by fiber and routers and such they lay down buried in their lawns. I’m sure plenty of engineers would come up with plenty of new devices to sell that would begin this process and result in bypassing ISP entirely, only making any suicide action the ISP does cause a temporary slowdown of the things people are wasting too much of their lives doing on social media anyway.