Net neutrality – here and then gone

Most of my recent posts have a political focus. These posts are not humorous and they are not intended to be. I am focused for the time being on serious topics without much levity because I have serious concerns.

This post addresses the topic of net neutrality. Most may have no idea what this means or why anyone would think the topic was important. Net neutrality is a simple idea. Basically, it would require that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) would not be allowed to prioritize content from one source over another. This was originally an issue because major ISPs had side interests that might make this a problem. For example, a cable provider provides both Internet and video programming (e.g., television and video). It would be a conflict should the cable company slow Netflix video in preference to the “on demand” movies it might want to sell you. The idea was that the provider should offer access and have nothing to do with how the user selected content to take advantage of the access.

Under the Obama administration, net neutrality was the position of FCC chair Tom Wheeler. Net neutrality expectations are being rolled back under new FCC chair Ajit Pai. In keeping with Republican priorities, Pai proposes that net neutrality limits business opportunities and the free market should limit abuse. I translate this as the assumption that if users are fed up with the service they receive, they will seek a different provider.

I disagree on several levels. Like certain essential services (e.g., transportation, health care), I regard reasonable online access as a right of citizenship and hence the responsibility of government and not private businesses with financial priorities. Second, I do not buy-in to the logic of free market in this area. The reality is that too few individuals have the opportunity to take advantage of the most basic definition of competition (i.e., a second option), most individuals have at best two financially reasonable options (probably one cable and one DSL), and the wealthy ISPs are politically active to limit open competition through options such as community wifi. This last issue is interesting – politicians in one case arguing for the free market and in more local situations politicans acting against a competitive option.

Some basic facts:

Access to high speed Internet and access to alternate ISPs

FCC study found that 58 percent of rural Census blocks did not have a “fixed” broadband service provider offering broadband speeds at speeds of 25 megabits per second download

The FCC reports that 36 percent of urban census blocks had two or more providers at 25 megabytes or better, but that percentage dropped to only 6 percent in rural America

Does competition work

FCC looked at the use of municipal broadband (in an order that has since been reversed by an appellate court on legal grounds), it set out evidence showing that the presence of an additional broadband provider pushes down the prices and increases the quality of both new and incumbent providers. In other words, such competition is “win-win.” It benefits those consumers who switch and even those that do not but who gain from faster download speeds resulting from the incumbent’s response to competitive pressures.

Are ISPs open to competition?

Because of the evidence that competition can be helpful, the FCC defended efforts to encourage community wifi as an option. This legal action sought to prevent communities from blocking those who wanted to develop such alternatives. This position was struck down in a court decision.

Wheeler further said that the judges’ ruling “appears to halt the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina.” Communities that want better broadband, he said, “should not be thwarted by the political power of those who, by protecting their monopoly, have failed to deliver acceptable service at an acceptable price.”

See a similar position from Forbes

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