Why Net Neutrality is Important to Digital Pills and other IOT Applications

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in mid-November approved a “digital pill” with an embedded sensor that enables for the remote monitoring of whether patients are taking their medication as scheduled. But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may soon thwart the implementation of that technology and many others by rolling back net neutrality rules.

What has net neutrality got to do with digital pills, you may ask? Plenty.

Net neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all traffic equally. The idea is that ISPs should not be allowed to artificially slow down traffic to or from sites owned by, say, competing companies or Web sites espousing views the ISP may disagree with. In short, net neutrality is intended to ensure the Internet is available equally to all, with no interference.

At least that was the intention of an FCC ruling in 2015, which came after years of wrangling over the issue. However, with a new administration came a new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, who is a former Verizon lawyer. ISPs (such as Verizon) view net neutrality rules as “illegal and overly burdensome.”

As early as December, the FCC is preparing to vote to either confirm the principle of net neutrality or, more likely, roll it back, at least to some extent. It’s an important issue for companies of virtually all stripes, as it will have ramifications for companies in the business-to-business space as well as for consumers.

What exactly may happen if the FCC abandons the concept of net neutrality is yet to be determined, but it is likely to give rise to a tiered Internet system, in which you must pay a premium for better performance or to gain access to certain sites. It could be much like cable TV services, where you pay varying prices depending on which channels the package includes – which is exactly what consumers in Spain and Portugal are faced with.

At a time when companies are making increased use of Internet of Things (IoT) and Industrial IoT (IIoT) technology, moving away from net neutrality would be a step backward. IoT, IIoT and any other remote monitoring technology requires data to be allowed to flow freely over networks, typically the Internet. Anything that threatens to restrict that flow could serve to thwart new applications, or least make them more expensive to implement.

Today companies simply pay an ISP for whatever size Internet pipe they require. Yes, if you want 50M, you pay more than if you only need 25M, but either way you’re free to use that pipe to access any sites you want and to send any kind of data you want.

However, imagine if an ISP decides to charge a premium depending on what kind of data you’re sending. One can imagine an ISP deciding that medical data, for example, is more valuable than email, and thus charging a premium for applications that involve the monitoring of medical devices, including “digital pills.” The same may be true of remote monitoring of devices installed in oil and gas fields, or mines – valuable data.

Some ISPs may simply determine pricing based on an application basis, and decide any IoT/IIoT application warrants a premium. ISPs would argue that such services would be worth the price to gain guaranteed data delivery. And maybe they will be, vs. the myriad ways companies already have to gain good performance over the Internet (caching, WAN optimization, etc.). We’ll have to wait and see.

This is all speculation at this point, but without the protection net neutrality rules have provided to all Internet users thus far, none of these potential developments are beyond the realm of possibility.




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