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.
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.