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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Net Neutrality -- Does It Matter?

Have you heard about "network neutrality?" If not, you will. And you should.

Warning: telecom and cable companies are real unhappy about it and prefer you remain ignorant about it.

Why should I care about "net neutrality?"

Picture this. You connect to the Internet. Today, you type any website address in your browser and it loads. Every website loads at the same speed. It only depends on the speed of your connection (and how many graphics are on it). It does not depend on which website you want.

Without net neutrality, that will change. Companies or people who pay the telecom/cable companies a higher fee will have their websites load faster. The rest will load at "normal" speed.

Sound familiar? It should. It's basically how the cable TV business works. Cable companies control which channels you can watch and at what price. You pay $X for the basic service, $X+Y for premium service and $X+Y+Z1 for each additional premium channel you want. Oh, and different premium channels have different prices. Confusing?

But wait, there's more bad news! If you had an idea for a new TV program or someone filmed a new show, you could never see it unless a TV network AND a cable company both agreed to broadcast it. Cable TV has few public access channels. Blogs, podcasting, personal TV channels do not exist on cable TV. They never will. Cable is a totally proprietary model.

So why do telecoms and cable companies want to change how the Internet currently works? Money. New revenue steams.

They claim that they will take nothing away from current Internet access; they are just adding a new, additional service for those who want more. They compare it to a 2-lane highway -- there is one lane for cars going at normal speeds and one lane for cars wanting to go faster. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Well... Do you have to pay more on most highways to drive in the fast lane? No. Does every highway have a toll? No. Furthermore, how much choice for cable or telecom do you really have?

Where I live in Washington, DC there is only one cable company. And I cannot choose which channels I want; I can only choose among the packages offered by my cable company. Even with the cheapest, basic service I pay for lots of channels I don't want and never watch. But I still have to pay for them if I want access to the few channels I do want. One company, limited choices. That's lock-in. It's bad for consumers and bad for companies who want to offer new content and services to consumers. That's why the Internet has grown so much faster than cable TV globally.

The Internet faces few barriers from government or industry. It is based on open standards and non-discriminatory access. That is the best formula for innovation and growth -- for consumers and companies.

Yes, defining net neutrality will be difficult. But the principle is right and best serves our public interest --- our need --- for equal access to the Internet and all the content that the human mind can create. It leaves plenty of room for all kinds of innovation and proprietary business. But it ensures that the foundation of the Internet remains accessible, open, and non-proprietary.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree with you on this one, fella.

Perhaps the government should mandate a minimum connection speed to deal with the your basic issue of access, but why shouldn't a business be able to say "Hey, extra speed is (important to my users and so we are going to pay for it"?

It's the same way a business might select more expensive offices or anything else, for that matter. In your highway analogy, the question is whether this new "fast" lane crams all remaining traffic into a "slow" lane and hence blocks the normal flow, or whether it would provide the extra $$ to create even more lanes (i.e. broadband capacity).

Personally, I am all for business (and individual) choice so long as the cost isn't borne by the rest of us (i.e. an externality problem).


Jeff Kaplan said...

No analogy is perfect. That said, sticking with my highway analogy, in fact the new fast lane could narrow the existing normal lane. How? If the telecom/cable companies reserve large amounts of bandwidth for themselves, forcing the ever-growing Internet traffic to use a narrower lane. This is compounded by the fact that many (most?) of us have no choice among broadband providers.

2 other related points:

1. Being able to slice up the bandwidth in effect allows telecom/cable companies to be the gatekeepers for new content and services on the Internet. This would undoubtedly have some negative effect on ease of innovation and content creation. As I mentioned, there is a reason why video blogs or individually created and self-aired TV channels have never appeared on cable TV.

2. Do we allow telephone companies to discriminate between telephone numbers by making one number I call connect faster than another number I call? That may be where this is headed.

Sam said...

I side with Jeff strongly on this one, DI. Your logic is Out-to-Lunch.

Neutrality must be preserved and legislating it is a good thing if that's necessary, which it appears to be.

One needs to be realistic when visualizing the mayhem caused if cable & phone companies were permitted to ration bandwidth -- in any way.

One equally needs to understand the fundaments of the Internet, how it works, to appreciate how selling a "fast lane" would indeed create a slow lane for other traffic.

It is especially disappointing that lobbyists or unthinking commentators like Douglas Holz-Eakin (once-director of the Congressional Budget Office) in his Mar 16 Comment in the Financial Times back pages frames the Net Neutrality issue as a regulatory issue and pushes Conservative buttons by distorting the issue to daclare something like: 'The 'Net should remain UNregulated...and therefore cable companies should be able to rent away premium bnadwidth.'

Not on my public space!

A better reference to the FT is the article from Mar. 20th:

Thomas W. Hazlett
"Neutering the net"