Net Neutrality – Simply

netneutrality-contentblockedToday, President Obama is going to lay out his approach to immigration reform. I’ll wait to see what he has to say before commenting. This post is about his weighing in on the proposed net neutrality ruling under the Federal Communications Committee (FCC).

Before getting in to the proposals the FCC is weighing, a little background on what net neutrality is and how we got here.

BACKGROUND

Net neutrality is the principle that all data on the Internet should be treated equally. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not discriminate based on content, user, application, site, platform, or any other distinguishing characteristic. It’s a term coined by a Columbia University Media Law professor Tim Wu. Others call it the open Internet as a means of being more accurate in addition to rebranding.

In 2010, the FCC passed the Open Internet Order which barred the practice of ISPs of charging fees for speedier access to content providers such as Netflix. In January of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. struck down key provisions of the FCC’s ruling thereby weakening the agency’s attempt to keep the Internet open. This opened the door for Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast to charge Netflix, Hulu, Google, and others for faster access to their networks and customers. Subsequently, the commission decided to write new rules to preserve its desire for an open Internet. If ISPs are allowed to differentiate access by content provider, consumers will lose out if they cannot afford to pay for greater access or a content provider cannot or will not pay for high-speed service on the ISP’s network.

Next, let’s discuss the pros and cons of net neutrality.

PROS

  • The founding proposition for the Internet was for free and unfettered access to information from anywhere. That’s why the “father” of the Internet and the creator of the web, Vincent Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee have spoken in favor of net neutrality.
  • Innovation and experimentation will be stifled should a tiered model for content providers as that would effectively create a barrier to entry.
  • Prevents ISPs that are also content providers (think Comcast and Time Warner) from potentially creating a system that favors their content to that over a competitor. (If you don’t think this is possible, read this article).

CONS

  • By disallowing ISPs to charge content providers for higher speed access, they will limit or discontinue investment in underserved areas in the U.S. (See this)
  • Ability to recoup their cost of investment in providing the broadband service  would diminish or possibly eliminate the Internet Service Provider’s ability to recoup its investment.
  • Less rather than more regulation is necessary.

The FCC is considering two approaches to the issues raised by the court ruling in January, regulating ISPs under section 706 or Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Currently, FCC classifies ISP as information service providers which are governed under Title I of the act.

Section 706

Since the section is short, basically two paragraphs with the second defining how inquiries into the enforcement of paragraph one, the entire paragraph is below.

The Commission and each State commission with regulatory jurisdiction over telecommunications services shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans (including, in particular, elementary and secondary schools and classrooms) by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.

Title II

Gives the FCC the authority to treat ISPs as a public utility. There are over 100 pages of regulations with this title many of which would not apply. The relevant portion is Section 202 which delineates that broadcast providers cannot discriminate against non-affiliated broadcasters. In other words, cannot charge more to a content provider that is not a part of the ISP’s content production.

A third alternative would be to create new rules and regulations that would specifically apply to the Internet, but we know that is not going to happen so we have these two inelegant approaches.

President Obama weighed in by urging the FCC to adopt the Title II approach over Section 706.

Neither one of these solutions works for me. Providing access to the Internet is an animal of a different color. However, I’m loathe to suggest new rules and regulations, we have enough of them. Instead, I’d like to see Title II streamlined and be less technology & platform specific. Barring that, I’d have to lean toward Title II as the proper approach. The elegance of Section 706 is appealing but I fear the language can be used to force ISPs to provide equal access to rural environments without the ability to recoup its investment. (Which in some circles is what net neutrality is all about.) Title II while over 90% is not applicable to Internet service, Title II is a better fit because its focus on leveling the playing field for content providers by protecting them from the service providers.

For fans of David Pogue and John Oliver, here is a link to their description of net neutrality and its impact (I highly recommend the John Oliver video):

David Pogue

John Oliver

jeffrey hastie
jahastie@gmail.com
@jhastie963

3 thoughts on “Net Neutrality – Simply

  1. Nicely explained but I think somebody needs to be forced to provide broadband access to all areas either wired or unwired. (99% will do – interior Alaska residents can move) It’s not like cable TV where lack of access means you’ll miss Mad Men and there’s no compelling reason to insist Time Warner, make investments with unacceptable ROIs. It’s different than Telco companies who had decades to put it together. It has more in common with electrification, both of which are required for modern life.

    Europe is way ahead of us in broadband access and I don’t know how they’ve done it. I’m too lazy to find out but I invite you to do the research for me.

    I don’t agree that we have enough rules and regulations. We simultaneously have far too many that are outmoded and/or stupid, and not nearly enough that address today and tomorrow’s situations.

    We must not leave our future in the hands of executives who are paid to focus on quarterly profits.

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  2. a *far* better approach would be to enable and encourage more competition in the ISP space.

    The Internet has gone unregulated since its inception and has seen more innovation and investment than any other sector of the economy — EVER. to suggest that continued non-regulation will stifle innovation is preposterous. It is no more sensible that saying that gravity must be regulated or else it will stop pulling things earthward.

    If you want Verizon to play Netflix faster, just invite Google Fiber to your town. The market competition will do wonders for your TV picture.

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    • Paul,

      I couldn’t agree more. I meant to have that as part of the post, so thanks for bringing that into the conversation. If the government wants to focus on anything, it should focus on breaking down the barriers to competition for the last mile. Some of us in the nation have it, but far too many don’t. And where there is competition, like where I live, it’s only two and that’s not real competition.

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