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Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler is under intense scrutiny for a plan that would permit content companies like Netflix to strike special deals with Internet service providers like Comcast for speedier service.

In response to the backlash, sources tell the Wall Street Journal that Wheeler has revised his proposal to expand oversight against ISPs, which might be tempted to “unfairly put nonpaying companies’ content at a disadvantage.”

Wheeler may believe that prohibiting ISPs from slowing down services will preserve net neutrality.

But there is a simple mathematical fact complicating the chairman’s new proposal: You cannot create fast lanes without creating default slow lanes. “Fast” and “slow” are relative terms. When states opened up an express access car lane for commuters, it essentially created a paid fast lane for those willing to shell out money for a permit or hybrid car while the rest of the population was stuck in traffic-jam torture.

The express lanes incentivized people to cough up money for a more expensive car or pay the toll rate, even if it didn’t necessarily intent to punish everyone else.

And, just like Los Angeles freeways, the Internet is already starting to get congested as ISPs look to secure more money to build out a faster Internet pipeline.

Critics of the FCC, including the man who coined the term “net neutrality,” Yale law professor Tim Wu, worry that allowing certain companies to pay for faster websites will crush the meritocratic web, since up-and-coming startups won’t be able to compete with established players.

ISPs argue that a few data hogs like Netflix take up roughly a one third of total bandwidth, but they don’t have to pay for the massively expensive infrastructure necessary to stream House of Cards in high definition.

Wheeler wants to preserve meritocracy while still incentivizing ISPs to invest in infrastructure. The problem is that if an established player like YouTube ends up paying for super high-quality video, consumers will begin to expect that level of service. A startup with an amazing video platform may never have the ability to compete, even if it has a better website.

We can’t predict what kinds of web services will be next, so we don’t know how giving advantages will crush new ideas.

For instance, in the future, most computing may be completely offloaded to the cloud. Companies like L.A.-based Otoy can stream applications to any device, potentially making computer upgrades unnecessary for a lot of consumers.

In the future, everything we do on computers will likely be streamed over the Internet. Startups could be left in the congested cattle-call while well-heeled players get to launch new products in the much more appealing fast lane. We should not underestimate how much consumer expectations will dictate what is considered fast and slow.

This isn’t to say the FCC is wrong for wanting to find a novel solution. But, there is no fast lane without creating a slow one at the same time.


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