|By Esmeralda Swartz||
|May 19, 2014 08:45 AM EDT||
The Internet has been buzzing over the recent news of a federal proposal that creates the equivalent of "slow" and "fast" lanes online. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on Thursday, May 15, 3-2 in favor of a new proposal that enables the creation of Internet fast lanes, where broadband and cable providers such as Comcast can charge companies like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and other over-the-top (OTT) providers to pay for priority traffic over a fast lane. The original FCC Open Internet Order of 2010 didn't declare that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were common carriers that must transport everything irrespective of the content - but it did outlaw pay-for-play fast lanes. The 2010 Open Internet Order is what companies like Verizon challenged and what led to parts being struck down in January 2014 by the US Court of Appeals. The 2010 Order failed to provide legal reasons for "the anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules" and the US Federal Appeals Court agreed with the ISPs. In order to impose such regulations, ISPs would need to be classified as common carriers, and would essentially be held to the same standards and regulations as your telephone company (telco). Your telco provider does not charge you extra to make calls during peak hours or to guarantee that calls won't be dropped. The public will now be allowed to provide comment, before the FCC enacts the final ruling later in the year. Adding fuel to the debate is whether or not the FCC can enforce policies that do not "divide the Internet into the ‘haves' and ‘have nots.'" Categorizing the debate this way does have the result of drawing individuals into the discussion that would otherwise have been content on the sidelines.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler insisted that the new proposal would not squeeze out the little players and that fast lanes will only be made available when they are "reasonable." It will be interesting to see what constitutes reasonable. He also called out that ISPs could not prioritize traffic from their own subsidiaries to the detriment of others and that Internet providers won't be able to penalize companies that don't pay for the fast lane by slowing their speeds. But giving one company more lanes on the Internet highway translates to a possible unintended consequence of fewer lanes for the rest of the traffic. And that additional fast lane revenue could create an incentive for broadband providers to allow network congestion to build, forcing companies to pay up or deal with the consequence of slow service.
The FCC fast lane plan did not impact deals like the ones reached between Comcast, Verizon and Netflix, in which Netflix (kicking and screaming) agreed to pay for direct connections to the broadband companies' networks to improve streaming speeds. The fast lane plan also does not cover traffic discrimination on the mobile Web. AT&T moved early this year to monetize wireless data caps by charging content providers for the right to serve up video and other media without chewing up consumers' monthly data limits. Eligible 4G customers can get mobile content and apps over AT&T's wireless network without impacting their monthly wireless data plan. The price of data is charged to the content provider and customers are billed based on usage.
The FCC has to consider public comments and face scrutiny from lawmakers before anything can happen. Many of the prophets out there are playing out the ultimate Internet doomsday scenarios, such as:
- Only popular and profitable services get capacity because these providers can afford to pay.
- Rates go up significantly and niche applications are blocked or relegated to the slow lane.
- When you sign on with an ISP, you will then get access to only the restricted portfolio of services offered by that particular ISP. It will be just like signing on to a cable company and getting only the programming the cable company has chosen.
- Will ISPs each issue their list of Internet "channels" to tell us what we can access? This may be easier than providing a list of what is blocked or slowed down.
- If service providers can adjust charging for the optimization of the increasingly scarce resource of bandwidth, what incentive is there for them to build more capacity? Why not just keep the network the way it is, and command higher and higher prices for the privilege of using it?
While the debate continues to play out in the media and increasingly in Washington, I thought it worthwhile to provide an alternative view on why the situation is perhaps not as dire as some would have us believe: good old-fashioned innovation and competition, the cornerstone of American capitalism.
In my series of blogs on net neutrality, I've suggested that the removal of the FCC's open Internet rules on blocking and preferential services might not in reality provide U.S. Internet access providers with the clear and unfettered path they expected to create new profits from Internet traffic control. In one example, I speculate that the device manufacturers might get in the way or demand a financial cut. In another, I imagine that edge-providers might not be an easy sell, and may even be among those that choose to set up shop as competitive access providers, now that the gate has been opened to imaginative competitive differentiation.
Like most things, the reality will likely be vastly different than the frenzied speculation. An alternative view is that we can look at the end of net neutrality as a step forward for competition in the world of Internet access by providing increased differentiation opportunities which are good for competition. If the only difference between services is price, then it's tough for new entrants to make a business case for entering the market. However, if every access provider offers a different suite of preferred edge providers, this expands the opportunities.
Who will step in and introduce the kind of competition that is needed to prevent the doomsday scenarios from becoming reality? This is a network infrastructure business, and traditionally the cost of entry has been prohibitively high. That's why we tend to think of telecom carriers and cable companies as "natural monopolies" and choose to live with the situation, alleviated somewhat by a modicum of regulation. However, this is the 21st century and the world is a very different place then when the net neutrality debate began over 20 years ago and the legal wrangling began. The cost of bandwidth has plummeted, broadband wireless access technologies are much more capable and cost-effective, and there are many large corporations such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google and more with deep pockets. There are also investors interested in anything disruptive and game-changing. What is clear is that disruption based on price alone will be the exception and not the norm.
Follow us on Twitter for more updates, and maybe more opposing views, on the ongoing net neutrality debate.
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