What hoteliers need to know about net neutrality

Is the internet still free and open, or are its best days behind us?

The internet as we know it may be over. Yesterday, the FCC voted 3-2 to reclassify broadband internet as an information service and not an aspect of telecommunications. As a result, the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC, will be in charge of regulating internet service providers in the future.

If you use the internet at all in your daily life, you have likely been assailed by the phrase “net neutrality” over the past several months. Net neutrality is the concept by which internet service providers enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source and without favoritism, and in most cases the ability to uphold this concept was controlled by the Federal Communications Commission.

Now, ISPs conceivably will be able to charge consumers more according to the services they offer, and they may be able to alter the speed at which different companies deliver data over the net. One caveat is that the ISPs will be forced to disclose when they have begun charging more for services, what they are charging and whether or not they are altering speeds in any way.

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If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Two-and-a-half years ago the FCC voted on whether or not broadband internet should be classified as a utility or a service. At the time, net neutrality was upheld. But the debate reaches back to 2014, when ISPs first began to question whether the internet was a commodity or a utility. Hotels already offer guests tiered internet packages—pay a little to access email, pay more for streaming and so on—and ISPs wanted to do something similar. The term “fast lane” often came up in discussions such as these, but rather than being a fast lane for consumers alone it was a fast lane for businesses, with businesses willing to pay more for preferential treatment able to receive it.

Because of this, many critics of the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality believe the change will hamper the internet’s free market, limit its accessibility and damage consumer confidence.

Lodging’s Take

As for how the loss of net neutrality will affect hotels, much remains unknown. Richard Sherwin, CEO of wireless ISP Spot On Networks, said service providers are going to have to be extremely transparent as to what they are willing—and not willing—to provide in the future, as well as what they are charging the customer. For hotels, Sherwin said this may not matter as long as ISPs remain forthcoming with information.

“It is likely hotels won’t be affected unless service providers start to be opaque,” Sherwin said. “If they do, the question is whether the FTC will take action or not, as they are in charge.”

So how should hoteliers act? Sherwin said operators, brands and owners should immediately get in contact with the service providers they are currently using and solidify a contractual relationship. This way, no matter what happens in the future, hotels know where they stand through a written and signed agreement.

“A contract takes precedence over regulation, or lack thereof,” Sherwin said. “A smart hotel will get it in writing.”

Second, hotels should inquire with their service provider as to what sites may be affected by future policies, and ensure that information comes as quickly as possible. For instance, if Netflix is being slowed down in a specific location or ISPs are charging more to access it, hoteliers better know. This grows more difficult because these speeds may be impacted by the relationships ISPs have with streaming companies, and the guest will feel the direct result.

“If a hotel’s service provider has an arrangement with a Netflix or a Hulu, effectively providing high-quality capability from that website to users, then the hotel’s user experience will be benefitted,” Sherwin said. “If Hulu and a service provider can’t come to an agreement, the hotel will be labeled with poor service by its guests.”

Uncertain Future

Because the ruling is so fresh, Sherwin—and the rest of the U.S., for that matter—isn’t sure exactly what is going to happen. One thing is for sure: The repeal will have its day in court.

New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman already announced plans to challenge the FCC’s ruling, and he even accused the organization of failing to property vet its public commenting board. He estimates 2 million stolen identities were used to post comments to the FCC website, with some of these identities belonging to dead New Yorkers.

However, FCC commissioner Michael O’reilly claims his staff was able to remove any fake comments submitted to its system. FCC chairman Ajit Pai defends the repeal, saying these changes will result in greater investments from ISPs into faster connections for U.S. citizens in rural areas, and characterized the decision as “restoring internet freedom.”

An oft-cited counterargument to this is that U.S. consumers often have limited access to choices in ISPs, and that any investigation from the FTC into meddling after the fact will take considerable time.

“Let’s remember why we have these rules in the first place,” Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, a trade group that represents tech firms such as Google and Facebook, told the New York Times. “There is little competition in the broadband service market.”

In addition, any future repeals to the FCC’s decision are expected to take place over a long period. For this reason, this current decision needs to be taken seriously, and hotels need to prepare themselves to operate in a market without net neutrality.