5 minute read |

How does the 2017 Net Neutrality Debate Affect VoIP?

VoIP phone service background

The term net neutrality crops up in Internet debate every few years. It almost seems like a cycle at this point – the FCC proposes a new rule on the topic, there is an uproar about the topic for a few days and then everything dies down. Lather, rinse and repeat every couple of years. It is no wonder that consumers and even businesses have become desensitized to the issue.

However net neutrality affects the way businesses function and how services are delivered to individuals and organizations alike. Given that more and more of our activities take place online, any change in the net neutrality rules can drastically affect Internet usage, media consumption and other online processes like banking or gaming.

Perhaps the biggest problem here is that the net neutrality debate is not a simple one. You can’t just make a simple list of the pros and cons and decide which side is better. Few people can predict the consequences of any change in net neutrality principles or how it will affect a particular industry. Many businesses now rely on the Internet for various workflows. For example, VoIP providers offer enterprise phone services to their clients over data networks. Any change in net neutrality will certainly affect the VoIP industry.

What Is Net Neutrality?

There are many definitions of net neutrality but it boils down to the principle that all data on the Internet should be treated the same. No entity – such as an ISP or even the government – should be able to control the speed at which data travels or how specific content is delivered to customers. This means no data throttling, no censoring of content or any other discrimination that favors one group over another.

How does this affect the Internet use of the average customer? The current net neutrality rules prevent ISPs from charging different rates for accessing different websites or for speeding up certain content over others. For instance, your ISP can’t charge you more for accessing YouTube versus another video streaming website. It also means that content providers cannot just pay the ISP to deliver their own images, videos or movies at higher speeds than the competition.

However the pros and cons of net neutrality affect more than Netflix or YouTube. It can – and will – affect entire industries ranging from VoIP to banking.

How Does Net Neutrality Affect VoIP in 2017?

The current Open Internet Order was implemented in 2015 and assures net neutrality to American customers. However the current FCC chairman has proposed a new rule that would repeal the above order. This will remove the barriers preventing ISPs from differentiating between various types of content. Since VoIP data is also a type of content, the repeal of net neutrality will affect this industry as well.

It’s not that difficult to visualize what would happen if the Open Internet Order is repealed. Businesses rely on high-speed Internet to get phone services from hosted VoIP vendors. So what happens in the absence of net neutrality? ISPs will be able to charge either VoIP vendors or businesses higher fees for accessing VoIP services. Conversely they can slow down VoIP data over their networks which can affect voice quality on calls.

Consider this example scenario. Suppose you are now paying $X per month to your ISP for certain Internet speeds. It doesn’t matter whether you use that bandwidth for streaming movies, making voice calls or having group conference calls. Without net neutrality rules, the ISP can arbitrarily decide to charge your company $X for normal data and $Y for VoIP data. What happens if you don’t want to pay the extra fees? Your ISP can slow down VoIP data only, thereby threatening your phone services which depend on high speed Internet.

Internet providers can even demand payment from the VoIP providers themselves. An ISP may decide to charge a certain fee for allowing VoIP data through their network, even though they are not improving service in any manner. Such payments can become a significant barrier to entry for new VoIP providers. It can force existing vendors out of business since they cannot afford the extra charges. Smaller businesses may be forced to consolidate with bigger players thus reducing competition in the field. The same competition that is fueling the current trend of furious innovation within the VoIP industry can be stifled in the absence of net neutrality rules.

Internet providers, VoIP vendors, content creators and media broadcasting companies all have a stake in this debate. The vast majority of products and services rely on the Internet in some form or the other. Any change in net neutrality rules can alter the nature of the Internet as we know it. There is no doubt that such a change will have consequences for the VoIP industry as well.

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