Earlier this week, President Obama gave a speech about what is popularly called ‘net neutrality.’ While I’m not sure that the solution he proposes (giving the matter to the FCC to regulate–partially) is a good answer, he is at least pointed in the right direction.
Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
The essential thing that makes the Internet wonderful is that it is unregulated. Put a properly formatted packet in at one end, and it comes out at the other. And for the most part, other than satisfying the technical element of ‘a properly formatted packet,’ there is no other requirement. The packet can contain anything at all. Moreover, there are no ‘first-class packets’ or ‘second-class packets:’ they all get routed and forwarded the same. This equality of packets is not established by government regulation: it’s configured into the Internet itself, as that was what they started with, and until now, there had been no compelling need to change it.
But some people would like their packets to have priority. Should they be able to pay for the privilege?
If a company like Netflix wanted to build its own network alongside the Internet to distribute its videos, and interconnect with Internet service providers to distribute their content to people’s houses, that would be cool. In this case, Netflix would be building infrastructure to better serve its customers, and they aren’t taking access away from anyone else.
But that’s not what the concept of ‘Internet fast lanes’ seems to be about.
Instead, the thought seems to be to maximize revenue from the infrastructure in place. So the bandwidth that is allocated for an ‘Internet fast lane’ is necessarily taken away from someone else.
So a content provider could pay extra for ‘fast-lane access’ and provide (in theory) superior service to a competitor who didn’t. Big content providers could roll the additional cost of ‘fast-lane access’ into their prices.
And smaller content providers who didn’t pay extra would be left at the mercy of Internet service providers and the bandwidth they cared to allocate for ‘non-premium access.’
The effect of this is very similar to government regulation: it favors the bigger firms, who can pay for priority access, while discouraging competitors.
And it might ultimately lead to a more difficult set of government regulations aimed at protecting some level of ‘non-premium access,’ and new criminal laws for the act of forging packet headers to secure priority access for packets without paying extra.
So net neutrality, where all packets are created equal, is the simplest approach.
This doesn’t mean that consumers can’t choose to pay more for faster Internet access. That has always been the case, and will continue to be. But that relates to the rate at which packets can be transferred from your home to the Internet, and not what happens beyond that.