If broadband is analogous to a superhighway, then the maximum speed should be regulated, not the access to the lanes. Access to the fast (left) lane and slow (right) lane should be free and available to all.
Over the past few years, VideoAge has covered network neutrality (or net neutrality) several times, but now that the FCC, the U.S. communication authority, has asked for my (and other people’s) two cents, here I am with the traditional winning proposition.
“Net neutrality” refers to an open, non-discriminatory Internet pathway. The idea is that all Internet traffic that is legitimate should be treated equally. Broadband providers want to offer “fast lanes” to premium customers willing to pay a toll.
This issue is now pitting the White House, the FCC and the Courts against one another, and in the entertainment sector, it is pitting the MPAA (studios) against the IFTA (indies) and NAB (broadcasters) against NCTA (cable). The irony is that “open Internet” advocates also want an unregulated Internet, just as much as broadband providers. All of it makes for a messy discussion.
The net neutralists seek to prevent preferential treatment in order not to create “have” and “have-not” consumers. To them, without net neutrality a telephone company can even block phone service over the Internet. Broadband providers argue that net neutrality would stifle innovation, especially for the expensive “last-mile,” the line to consumers’ homes.
For the FCC the basic question remains whether the Authority should subject broadband service (including Wi-Fi) to utility-like regulation, similar to telephone service or cable-TV companies. This would mean that broadband providers would be defined as common carriers that have to sell their services to all consumers without discrimination, like the utilities have to do. However, common carriers are heavily regulated.
According to some people, the Internet is an information service that doesn’t have to be regulated. So far the FCC has classified the broadband provider as a “telecommunications service.”
These are the facts. Now here’s my opinion, formulated by analyzing three elements:
1) Broadband providers are common carriers like cable companies and telephone companies, which after all, they are. Why is a telephone company a common carrier if it carries voice, but only an information service if it carries data? The infrastructure is the same, after all.
2) The Internet should be divided into information and transport. Regulations don’t control what is said over the phone, but only how the voice and data is carried over the wires and airwaves, which, in this case, is the broadband network.
3) Using “transport,” “traffic,” “fast lanes,” and “superhighways” analogies associated with the Internet brings to mind the fact that authorities don’t micro-manage the speed of cars on highways, but for safety reasons only impose maximum speeds. The same can be done for broadband: establish a maximum speed so that all traffic can flow without congestion. Ferraris (the Netflix and YouTube of television) can reach the speed limit in the left lane, while Fiat 500s (your mom-and-pop mail-order online store) can leisurely cruise in the right lane.
Then, if the mom-and-pops are willing to invest in new engines that make the 500s run faster (while still respecting the speed limit), the added burden is on innovation, not on changing lanes.
The FCC’s final action is expected this month, and be assured that it will be linked to the approval of mergers between Telco AT&T and satellite TV provider DirecTV, and between MSOs Comcast and Time Warner Cable. But these are topics for tomorrow’s “My 2¢.”