From tablets to thermostats, the ubiquity of the Internet in our society is almost frightening. So the fight over net neutrality — whether the Internet should remain as it is and not be controlled by individual companies — is important not because of the money some companies stand to make or lose but because of how the Internet now affects us all.
This past week, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler released a proposal on how to preserve the free flow of data online. Essentially, it's a response to what the courts have indicated to the FCC in the past. In order for the FCC to have a say in preventing anyone from disrupting the Web, Internet service must be recognized as a telecommunications service (rather than an information service) and be classified under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. So the FCC chairman has proposed exactly that, as well as adding mobile data service into the equation since so much essential Internet access is handled on those networks.
The FCC commissioners won't vote on the proposal until Feb. 26, and it could be modified before then. In the meantime, here's why you should care about net neutrality and how the FCC's decision could affect your family.
The future of the car — whether it's a utopia of completely self-driving vehicles or of merely smart semi-autonomous cars — will depend on reliable, fast communications over the Internet. Cars will need to be able to alert other cars about their relative positions (so they don't hit each other) as well as provide information about accidents ahead, weather, and traffic conditions. The auto industry is already at work on such so-called vehicle-to-vehicle systems, which will save lives. Those plans all assume the Internet is preserved under its current protected state.
From Apple to GE, companies have gone bonkers for smart home devices connected to the Internet. Door locks that can be opened remotely, lights that sense danger, and heating and cooling systems that automatically adjust to the weather all rely on Internet connections. If that access is restricted, it could stymie an entire new wave of technology.
As it became apparent that more of us were watching Netflix rather than cable TV, it also became apparent that the future of entertainment, from music to e-books, would be online. Indeed, the amount of Internet traffic attributable to Netflix alone has panicked telecommunications companies and sparked the battle over net neutrality. Carriers complained and in many cases now charge Netflix for faster access to their networks. If the FCC isn't able to regulate the Internet, prices for online entertainment will go up.
Communicating with family
Text messaging has replaced the phone call to check on a child (or girlfriend or boyfriend). It's reliable, quick, and relatively unobtrusive. But while mobile phone calls are currently protected under Title II, information traveling over the mobile data portion of the network is not. The new FCC proposal would change that, ensuring that there wasn't a sudden slow-down in your texts.
Health and wearable tech
It started with fitness bands, which tend to be relatively frivolous gadgets to monitor the number of steps we take each day. But the future of wearable technology will be much more serious, monitoring a diabetic's insulin levels, checking for any arrhythmia in a heart patient, or even looking for the signs of high blood pressure in someone who might be a candidate for a heart attack. All these devices need to be reliably connected to the Web.
What could it cost?
The new FCC proposal would not directly affect the prices we pay for Web access. Internet service providers would be able to charge us the same monthly fees — or more — just as it is now. Voice mobile phone service is under Title II, for example, and it hasn't affected prices one way or the other or effected investments by those companies. On the other hand, it could save consumers money in the long run by preventing ISPs from charging extra fees to companies with large websites and services like Amazon, who would in turn pass on those fees to you and me.
John R. Quain is a personal tech columnist for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.