Will Consumers Be Heard in Net Neutrality Debate?

The findings from a new survey released last week tracking how people react to online content delivery are not surprising: consumers have little patience for slow websites and expect their mobile service to be just as fast, or faster, than their home computers.

But don’t discard the survey just yet. The real takeaway, and the reason so much attention was paid, is the impact the survey may have in driving the debate over net-neutrality by presenting the side of a voice not often heard in the debate: consumers.

Exhibit A: half of users say they expect websites to load as quickly or faster on their mobile phone than their home computer. Yet the most recent, and high-profile, proposal for net neutrality, a compromise devised by Verizon and Google in August, would exempt mobile broadband services from any rule enforcement by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The survey also found that about a third of Internet users will abandon slow-loading websites within five seconds. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said a slow-loading website would discourage them from coming back, and 27 percent said a slow-loading site would make them more likely to visit a competing site. Two-thirds of respondents said they run into a slow-loading website at least once a week.

The survey by Gomez, the web performance arm of IT application vendor Compuware, was conducted in late June among 1,004 Internet users.

Net neutrality is largely what exists on the Internet now: the principle that all information flowing on the Internet should be treated equally or, more specifically, that Internet service providers should not be allowed to favor certain content over other content by delivering it faster.

The survey results show that websites can be harshly disadvantaged and punished by consumers for poor performance and bad connections. The study’s authors point to these results as evidence of why companies are willing to spend millions of dollars and precious energy to steer the debate: faster websites have a competitive edge.

Supporters of net neutrality, who say it fosters innovation, are likely to use the survey results to push their argument that the FCC or Congress must establish rules to prevent Internet providers, like Verizon, from cutting deals with content providers, like YouTube, to give their traffic priority over other traffic.

The other side, the study’s authors say, will use the results to continue their fight against FCC regulations, arguing its within their rights to maintain the option to pay Internet providers to gain priority access to their customers.

The heightened debate over net neutrality began two years ago when it was revealed that Internet service provider, Comcast, was putting some content, through download service BitTorrent, over other content, and thereby slowing down traffic for everybody else.

The FCC then led by Kevin Martin, sued Comcast for violating net neutrality principles but, two years later, the agency was slammed by the court of appeals in Washington which ruled it had no grounds for reprimanding Comcast.

Lacking jurisdiction, the FCC, now chaired by Julius Genachowski, a supporter, along with President Obama, of net neutrality, has since struggled to pursue the issue. The agency recently convened all sides of the issue to work on a framework for net neutrality.

When those talks failed, Verizon and Google collaborated to devise their own plan that gave the FCC some authority and recommended Internet service providers not be able to block or offer a paid “fast late” to content providers.

The FCC announced last Wednesday it would seek public comments on whether net neutrality rules should apply to mobile broadband and specialized services, a decision that could delay the rule-making process well into late 2010. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is leading the effort to devise a legislative solution.