Why You Should Care About Net Neutrality

FCC to Consider Whether New 'Internet Neutrality' Rules Are Needed

OK, now that you're up to speed on "telephony trivia" the question about to be hard fought before the FCC shortly is whether any new "Internet neutrality" rules are needed to ensure the preservation of the open Internet.

Proponents of new rules to ensure non-discrimination, including most prominently the chairman of the FCC, point to cases where broadband providers have blocked competitive services like VoIP or taken action to disfavor lawful peer-to-peer file sharing applications.

They also point out that the broadband marketplace only has limited competition, so consumers have little ability to influence the practices of their provider -- or to walk if discrimination occurs. What is more, the economic self-interest of broadband companies makes discrimination over time more likely.

Today's broadband Internet delivers content and services that directly compete with the broadband company's own cable TV and phone services. The opportunity for mischief, either by slowing down or otherwise discriminating against the online competition or cutting financial deals with some online services for favored status, is a serious concern.

Traffic Online Is Increasing at Exponential Pace

Complicating the analysis is the question of how to define the phrase "reasonable network management." Traffic on the Internet is increasing at an exponential pace, forcing network providers to invest heavily in upgrading their networks and making them more capable of managing traffic to cope with congestion.

There are legitimate questions about whether prioritization of specific categories of traffic that need speedier or more reliable delivery constitutes discrimination or is simply legitimate network management requiring nuanced public policy guidance.

In addition, there are questions of when and how broadband providers may offer communications services that are not Internet-based (think cable television, private corporate networks, etc.) and hence ought not be subject to non-discrimination rules.

Broadband providers are adamant that no rules are necessary: They argue Internet subscribers sign up for service with the expectation that they will get access to the entire Internet, and a broadband provider would be foolish to deliver anything less. The market they say, will keep them honest. Meanwhile, rules could hamstring efforts to manage congestion and maximize network performance, and depress investment in broadband.

There are reasons to be skeptical that market forces would provide an adequate safeguard against such an outcome because it is difficult for consumers to evaluate the impact of a broadband provider's prioritization policies.

Suppose a new application is working poorly or slowly. Is the new application just not that good or it is the broadband provider interfering with its delivery?

Without more transparency, consumers cannot tell what is going on and the market cannot provide an effective check. And it doesn't help that most consumers have a very limited number of broadband providers from which to choose.

With its proposed Internet neutrality regulations, the commission is facing a tricky task. It must avoid a rule that amounts to micromanagement of broadband networks. It must provide the flexibility to deal with network harms and congestion. And it must leave breathing room for innovation for both network operators and online companies.

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