What’s the big deal with net neutrality, and why should planners and suppliers care?

It is a big deal, and there is a lot at stake for our events and our industry. Here’s what’s going on: The principles of net neutrality state that no company or service can buy or be given a speed advantage in delivering online content to you and me. To look at it another way, any and all online services—such as Netflix, Hulu or your company’s web and video presence—are entitled to be downloaded at the same high speeds received by those who can afford and choose to pay a premium price.

In February, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that these principles will remain in place, with the Internet to be regulated as a public utility. This was music to the ears of most Internet users and many high-profile tech companies.

But this was only the first round of a heavyweight battle between the mega ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and the everyday Internet users and content providers. The “megas” aren’t happy with this decision and are attempting to overturn it on legal grounds.

Isn’t this just capitalism at work? Well, not exactly, according to many.

Leveling the Playing Field

“The issue isn’t so much about charging more for different access, but giving customers what they need. Even with a monopoly, people will eventually find a better solution.”

–Jessica Levin, president & chief connector, Seven Degrees Communications

The Internet was born and has grown up on principles of equality for all. Anyone and everyone (for good or bad) has the ability to provide content—whether it’s on a website, streaming video, photos—and do so on a level playing field. Internet success is based on the quality of content (or at least the interest of the audience to receive such material).

The best analogy to me about net neutrality is your daily commute. Imagine on your drive to work that one day, without notice, the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane rules change. The only cars now allowed in HOV lanes are vehicles that cost $60,000 or more. What’s more, the speed limit for the regular lanes is reduced to half the speed of the fast lanes. Seem fair to you?

Naturally, the megas see the FCC ruling as a restriction of their ability to make more revenue by selling more “speed lanes” (and yeah, I know that this premium upsell approach is the baseline for almost every airline today). To be fair, USTelecom, a trade association representing many ISPs, says the ruling and resulting regulation impedes “the robust investment and rapid innovation that characterize the Internet today.”

While I do get Business 101 at a fundamental level, you can make a case that the technologies we enjoy today, as well as the entrepreneurial spirit that drives much of today’s successful businesses, would not be part of our life if smaller companies didn’t have the opportunity to compete with established organizations on a level playing field.

Imagine 2015 without Amazon, Facebook, Twitter or Google. They are all big businesses now, but not too long ago they were creating a niche for themselves in the nascent online universe. Without a neutral Internet, what’s the likelihood that any would be part of today’s lexicon?

Planners at a Disadvantage

With regard to the meetings industry, what if only first-tier city convention and visitor bureaus were able to stream content at a fast speed, while the myriad, amazing non-first-tier cities had to share at a significantly slower rate (and greater competitive disadvantage)? That might be all right if you were in New York City or Chicago, but how would you feel if you worked for an awesome destination such as San Antonio? Or St. Louis? Or Portland (either in Oregon or Maine—take your pick)? That competitive disadvantage could cost these cities millions of dollars in revenue and job loss.

To further this point outside of CVBs, what if only larger corporations could afford the Internet fast lane? How would smaller meeting planning and supplier organizations compete and become relevant if their content was throttled? Imagine the tremendous disadvantage most third-party planning companies—or audiovisual companies, or decorators—would face trying to compete for business. What if all but one or two major players in each segment was given the “slow lane” for their marketing, communications and interactivity with their clients and constituents?

And about that meeting planner content: Marketing for your annual conference now becomes a burden for you and your potential attendees, who would have to really want to see that four-color brochure you’ve sent to wait out the longer download time. Sharing of information is also a slog if your webinar or hybrid event chugs along at dial-up speeds. We might as well bring back our 96K modems and play a few (dozen) games of Minesweeper while waiting for your registration form to download.

“Meetings and events are sucking ever greater amounts of bandwidth to support activities from streaming content to mobile event applications on personal devices…. We can only imagine what could happen to fees if the ISPs providing Internet to our venues were deregulated.”

–Jeff Rasco, CEO, Attendee Management, Inc.

The final FCC decision will likely impact all of the technologies that affect us at events:

  • Event bandwidth could be significantly slower than it is today (no laughing, please).
  • Increased costs are likely. “As a company that relies heavily on high bandwidth Internet access, we were deeply concerned,” says Jeff Rasco, CEO of Attendee Management Inc, a technology-based attendee management services company, regarding the FCC ruling. “A different decision or a reversal on the standing could significantly impact our bottom line, and so increases would be passed on to our customers.”
  • The multitude of conference apps may not ever become go-to event tools if attendees can’t download them, or get updates and social posts in a timely manner. Maybe only one conference app provider will be able to pay for the fast- lane approach; will that ultimately provide the planner with a reasonable choice in services?

What can we do as an industry? Jessica Levin, president and chief connector of Seven Degrees Communications, advises, “Have open conversations with the players who are listening (management, planners, providers). Start thinking in terms of overall value and service, and less about nickels and dimes.”

Interestingly, the net neutrality conversation has not been considered by most in the hospitality industry. Almost to an individual, people who were asked their opinion about how the net neutrality decision affects our industry didn’t know what impact, if any, there would be. That is understandable to some extent, as this isn’t a meeting-industry-specific issue. It’s one with much broader implications.

Competitive Balance

“Can you imagine no net neutrality, and suddenly we’re paying fees to access specific parts of the Internet just like when we pay outrageous fees to access movies on pay-per-view in a hotel room? As I understand it, applying a profit motive to accessing specific content or parts of the Internet could have major implications on businesses, organizations and the hospitality industry, for sure.”

—Jeff Hurt, executive vice president of education and engagement, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting

More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt helped keep United States businesses at a healthy competitive balance through trust-busting efforts to ensure that monopolies didn’t exist in various businesses. Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, dissolved more than 100 trusts. The results were far-reaching: fairer wages, reasonable worker hours, better worker safety, child labor laws—and a competitive marketplace for everyone.

Competitive balance is essential in every industry. Fiscally solvent organizations have the ability to outspend their competition. All that net neutrality is trying to do is what Roosevelt did a century ago: Maintain a fair and level playing field.

The ruling by the FCC is now in the legal arena, a battle that is certain to last a long time. A few weeks after the decision, two separate lawsuits were filed against the ruling. One of the lawsuits is from USTelecom, which has high-level executives from Verizon and AT&T on its board. The lines are clearly drawn.

While that final decision is still in the distant future, it’s time to think about how this ruling will ultimately affect our industry—and your events and services.

As for me, I’m going to go looking for that 96K modem. Glad I didn’t try to sell it on eBay.

Jim Spellos is a technology trainer and lover of all things “way cool.” In his former life, he spent 20 years in the hospitality industry as a meeting planner.