A Different Type of Cyber Warfare

By Cale Jones

February 2, 2015

On Thursday, January 29, the FCC redefined the speed requirements for a broadband internet package to 25 Mbps down / 3 Mbps up (increased from 4/1 set in 2010). Using this new standard, 17 percent of Americans lack access to broadband internet. But the shift highlights the deficit in rural areas, where over half of the population lacks access to this type of service. Most alarmingly, 35 percent of schools across the entire country don’t have the infrastructure necessary to carry the service. For the rest of the country, this move doesn’t mean much. 25/3 is considered a mid to low tier package in urban and suburban areas. For example, in the Mid-Atlantic, Cox offers speeds up to 150/25. Comcast offers the same speeds in cities and suburbs nationwide. So why the redefinition to a middle-of-the-road offering when so many areas are incapable of even carrying it?

The move is just an effort to reprimand ISPs for not implementing or responding to the last standard. 20 percent of rural Americans currently lack access to the 4/1 speeds. When that standard was implemented in 2011, 21 percent didn’t have access. Furthermore, there seems to be a market for this quality of service in rural areas. Where 25/3 is available in rural areas, 28 percent of the population subscribes, compared to a similar 30 percent in urban population centers.

This is part of a larger ongoing struggle in Washington over the future of broadband. As more and more Americans become “cordcutters,” (those who abandon cable television for internet services like Netflix and Hulu) cable companies have begun to make efforts to retain profits and viewers in key demographics while trying to adapt to the requirements of these sites. The most notable of these moves was Comcast’s alleged throttling of Netflix traffic. These allegations were followed by Comcast charging Netflix a fee, which Netflix paid, to ensure its service reached viewers uninterrupted. These actions have also sparked fears that ISPs will charge consumers more for using certain websites like Netflix. Thus, the debate over net neutrality has grown, several times drawing comments from the President including the recent State of the Union address.

The FCC is scheduled to vote in late February on new regulations that would ensure net neutrality in the United States. But for the FCC to do so, it agency will have to declare that it can regulate internet service like a common utility, an action that likely will be challenged in the judicial system. To begin 2015, the House of Representatives has drafted its own net neutrality legislation. The bill prohibits ISPs from throttling or charging premium prices for specific traffic, but critics have noted several loopholes. Most notably, the exception given to ISPs to be able to ensure reasonable network management. Network management is a broad term that could be used as a scapegoat to throttle traffic at certain times of the day. ISPs argue that this is currently a major necessity in providing a quality service to everyone. But given the types of traffic and speeds that they advertise they are capable of, it hasn’t been enough to completely dissuade critics. Possibly more influential is what could happen if another piece of legislation is passed as well. CISPA, or the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, has gotten its own share of criticism with regards to online privacy, but it poses a threat to Net Neutrality as well. Now reemerging in 2015, CISPA would allow the government to completely block domains that contain “harmful threat.” What constitutes said threat is not well defined in the bill. Should both bills pass, one must wonder what powers ISPs would have in reporting threats. Is piracy a threat under CISPA? Could an ISP block all torrent traffic under government authority because some of it carries illegally distributed content? This would all depend on how each bill is enforced. However, those who fear the worst do not want to take the risk to find out. Regardless of how the situation plays out, the way we use the internet is set to change in 2015.