December 14 update: The FCC voted to repeal net neutrality protections by a 3-2 vote.

On December 14, the FCC is expected to vote on a measure that eliminates net neutrality. This move could have dire consequences for everyone who uses the internet, including businesses and their customers.

For the food industry, ending net neutrality could stifle competition and hinder companies’ digital transformation because internet service providers (ISPs) would be able to charge businesses extra to deliver their content at high speeds.

Key takeaways:

  • Net neutrality is the simple idea that all online content is treated equally. It’s what makes the internet the powerful communications channel it is today.
  • Ending net neutrality could harm competition and innovation by allowing companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T to control how quickly your website loads. That means they could make you pay extra for visitors to view your content at normal speeds.
  • Without net neutrality, food companies may have difficulty implementing digital technologies that depend on the internet, like cloud-based software and Internet of Things systems, because of the high cost.

Keep reading for an overview of net neutrality or skip straight to the potential consequences for the food industry.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the simple idea that all online content is treated equally. It’s a level playing field — your website and Nestle’s website both have the same opportunity to reach your audience.

Net neutrality was codified in 2015, when the FCC classified the internet as a telecommunications service. That meant the internet was subject to the same regulations as a public utility, and it required ISPs — like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T — to treat all traffic the same.

Although the law was passed only a few years ago, this is how the internet has always worked. And it’s the reason the internet has evolved into the powerful communications channel it is today.

[The growth of the internet] has been built on one central idea: Every company, every organization and every individual has essentially the same ability to reach every internet user in the world. Larger players had bigger motors and much more fuel, but everyone used the same road. ~Barry Levine, Martech Today

What is the FCC’s plan?

The move the FCC is expected to make next week will reclassify the internet as an information service. That will mean it’s no longer regulated like a utility, which will free up ISPs to do what they want.

Those who oppose overturning net neutrality fear that ISPs will give preferential treatment to some types of content. For example, ISPs could provide faster load speeds for content they own or to companies that pay them for the privilege. In other words, not everyone will be able to use the same road — there will be fast lanes and slow lanes.

This fear is not unfounded. In the image from Arstechnica below, you can see what Comcast said about net neutrality in 2014, just before the legislation was enacted, compared to what it said earlier this year. Notice that the line about not prioritizing internet traffic or creating paid fast lanes has been removed.

Comcast net neutrality statement
Source: Arstechnica

Big ISPs also have a history of discriminating against certain types of content. In 2007, Comcast got in trouble for throttling peer-to-peer content sharing through BitTorrent. And in 2012, AT&T came under fire for trying to require users to have a higher-priced plan to use Apple’s FaceTime.

How will this affect the food industry?

Any company that uses the internet for any of its operations should be concerned about the loss of net neutrality. Here’s why.

Potential loss of competition and innovation

The loss of net neutrality could disproportionately hurt small businesses by hampering their ability to get their message in front of their audience. If ISPs are allowed to charge some companies more than others, then the companies that win will be those with the deepest pockets rather than those with the best solutions.

Potentially less access to cloud services, including the Internet of Things

Like other manufacturing industries, the food industry has been steadily adopting more cloud-based software and services. For example, many food manufacturers are using the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to remotely monitor equipment, improve supply chain transparency, and boost their food safety efforts.

Again, if ISPs can charge more to be in the fast lane, only big companies with deep pockets will be able to realize these operational improvements.

“If a company had to pay more to gain higher bandwidth capacity to their data, then only the big-name companies would be able to compete without restrictions. Middle- to small-level companies would struggle to successfully run their IoT systems because they would not be able to afford faster internet access.” ~Carlos Gonzalez, Machine Design

There’s a reason the big ISPs are the only ones pushing for an end to net neutrality — it’s because they’re the only ones set to profit from it. Other businesses will likely all suffer, either from having to pay higher fees for internet service or from being priced out of the market altogether. Learn more about the winners and the losers in this video from Fortune.