Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler resigned today, effective January 20 (inauguration day). It is a customary resignation when a new political administration is headed for the White House. In this case, a Republican president overseeing an agreeable Congress makes likely a reversal of Wheeler policies. In the context of online audio, one important existing policy is net neutrality.
The principle of net neutrality holds that online media companies should play on a level field, no company enjoying an infrastructure advantage over others. A common example is Netflix gaining a “fast lane” into people’s home broadband connections through business development with cable companies which provide high-speed internet connections. Such a business deal could prioritize Netflix video-watching traffic, giving smoother HD connections to Netflix watching compared to Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other competitors. In fact, Netflix did create such a deal with Comcast in February, 2014.
That was before Wheeler successfully established net neutrality, a set of rules that went into effect in June, 2015. Wheeler and the FCC overcame governmental resistance by reclassifying the internet as a public utility, rather than an open-market business environment. Broadly speaking, net neutrality is supported by Democratic lawmakers, and resisted by Republicans who feel the internet should not thwart normal business development. From an ecosystem perspective, deregulating fast lanes for online media threatens young and small companies which might not be able to get their services into homes effectively, squeezed out by ISP throttling.
President-Elect Trump has explicitly criticized net neutrality at least once, in a tweet that compared it to the Fairness Doctrine, a discontinued FCC rule that required media outlets to provide balanced coverage of opposing political viewpoints. That rule was removed from the books in 2011. Trump’s comparison is fairly apt, insofar as net neutrality could be considered a fairness rule that provides equal bandwidth provision to technology competitors.
How does net neutrality apply to audio? Much the same as with video, except that audio requires less bandwidth overall. Even so, if net neutrality rules are eliminated, it’s feasible to imagine that some of the major online audio outlets could deal with mobile telecom providers for privileged streaming access to customer phones. Could T-Mobile, which provides free bandwidth for music (and video) streaming, accept deals that bestow bandwidth favoritism? T-Mobile has already been sporadically criticized for selecting the audio services recognized by its Music Freedom list — so it already engages in curation of bandwidth availability.
Putting aside such specific speculation, it is fairly predictable that net neutrality rules will be revised or removed under a Republican-appointed FCC commissioner.