Net Neutrality: Let's Move Beyond Class Warfare - InformationWeek
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Net Neutrality: Let's Move Beyond Class Warfare

The Hatfields say consumers will suffer if we prioritize Net traffic. The McCoys say we're headed for communism if we don't. They're both wrong: The problem is lack of broadband competition, not lack of openness and equality.

The FCC says it's seeing "an overwhelming surge" in comments on its proposed rulemaking for net neutrality. "Please be assured that the Commission is aware of these issues and is committed to making sure that everyone trying to submit comments will have their views entered into the record," says the FCC, which has extended the comment period until Friday, July 18. I'm all in favor of an extension if that means the net neutrality comments will get less emotional and more analytical and constructive. But I'm not betting on it.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has indicated that he's all for increasing broadband competition. In fact, he's on the record saying that municipalities should be allowed to offer broadband to increase consumer choice. So far, so good, except for the incumbent carriers. But then, as part of the proposed rulemaking to govern broadband, Wheeler dared suggest that the carriers be allowed to charge content providers more for fatter pipes, thereby creating a firestorm. Wheeler later clarified the rulemaking to indicate that in no way would the carriers be allowed to slow down the traffic of the content providers that don't pay up. Yet the debate rages on.

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The problem is that both factions are making net neutrality an emotional issue. The Hatfields argue that if we let the carriers sell fatter pipes to content providers willing to pay for it, we're squashing mom and pop and ultimately the poor consumer. The McCoys argue that if we regulate the Internet and insist on equal treatment for all, we're well on our way to communism and toilet paper lines.

A humble request: Can we stop the class warfare?

I agree that broadband in the US stinks. As a consumer, I see my kids' games get interrupted or "lagged" all the time. My home VoIP calls, which were zippy and echo-free when I first subscribed, get dropped all the time now. Consistency is a problem: shows 11 Mbit/s downloads one day, 0.5 Mbit/s another day. I have to call my provider every few months and threaten to switch -- to the one other choice. Sometimes it gets better, sometimes it doesn't. Every few years I switch to the one other provider and then discover that a duopoly isn't really a market at all. One is just as terrible as the other. Most everyone knows what independent sources confirm: Cable and Internet service providers offer terrible customer service.

So just about everybody except for the carriers themselves agrees that broadband ain't what it could or should be. But neither faction in the net neutrality war sees fit to focus on how to make things better for consumers. They're competing to supply the better spin.

Back to the FCC's call for comments. Sure, public participation in the process is important, and the FCC has logged almost 700,000 comments already, many of which, I'm sure, were in reaction to Last Week Tonight host John Oliver's call to viewers to overwhelm the FCC's site (his clip generated more than 4.5 million views on YouTube alone). If we're looking for a metric on the popularity of Oliver or his HBO show or how well he can push buttons, then well played, sir. If we're looking for intelligent and helpful ways to fix US broadband, then those hundreds of thousands of trollish comments might not be so productive.

So the question remains: How can the FCC take these and other inputs and arrive at a reasonable place?

My initial thought was that it should run small experiments in market segments and use the results to inform its rulemaking. Will paid prioritization of Internet bandwidth really start creating industry winners and losers? My guess is probably not, but heck, do the experiment and find out.

Here's the problem with that approach. In the same way that a boss in a dysfunctional work environment will manipulate metrics to tell the story he wants to tell, no matter what the metrics actually say, the FCC would run those small experiments and then they'd get politicized.

Chairman Wheeler must recognize that the red-hot issue of paid prioritization is a complete distraction. I don't think such prioritization is necessarily good or bad -- at some level, we have that today when we choose a 100 Mbit/s pipe over a 10 Mbit/s one. But now that the issue has become so emotionally and politically charged, Wheeler, like any effective bureaucrat, must back off it and think of other ways to effect change.

Focus on what's working, and move to encourage more of that. For example, as bad as consumer broadband is, commercial broadband is better. Why? More competition. I have two choices for Internet access at home. I have four at work. My work broadband is far, far better. So Wheeler and the Congress need to think about ways to create more competition. What they don't need to do is get on a hot HBO talk show and incite more class warfare.

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Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Ninja
7/17/2014 | 10:04:33 AM
Some great points about competition, it's certainly the best bet for consumers in the long run as it sounds like you guys have it pretty rough. In the UK we have a pretty good spread of companies for broadband provision, but it's with our digital TV that there are some real monopolies.

Sky, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp gets a year lead-in on every other service for movies and US TV. So you can have a Netflix and LoveFilm accounts, be connected to Free-sat and a variety of other services and still not get access to new movies until Sky has dropped them.

It's a total monpoly and hopefully over time we'll see these sorts of things come to an end. 
User Rank: Author
7/17/2014 | 10:53:26 AM
Related update
An update: the House passed a Republican-led restriction on the FCC's power to act on municipal broadband:

Weigh in readers. Do you agree with Jonathan's perspective?
User Rank: Apprentice
7/17/2014 | 11:47:49 AM
Re: Related update
Yes I agree with Jonothan's statements.  Prioritization is a cold hard reality on all broadband, internet, and communications networks.  It has been in service for as long as I have been working in the industry, and will continue to be.  Just as Jonothan points out, Businesses have access to a much wider range of Broadband Network providers versus homes, and Businesses get much better quality of service because they are paying extra for it too.  We pay for Cable/IPTV video services, more than double what we pay for broadband in most cases, and that is delivered with prioritized quality of service.  We pay for Mobile and Fixed Voice service from the Mobile and Fixed network providers, and that is connected and managed with prioritized dedicated quality of service as well, and we pay as much for that as we do for broadband in most cases, using a tiny fraction of the network bandwidth to talk!  Broadband networks, up until now, have not had the optional technology enabled to set up quality of service paths across network providers to application servers and other consumers end points.  Now with the latest versions of international Mobile 3GPP standards, we do have that option, across all networks, Cable, Telco (DSL/Fiber) and Mobile.  This means that broadcast channels and individual user sessions may be set up end to end on demand.  This means that new ways (commercially and technically) of subscribing to cable "channels" and users content may be brought to the market.  If the US Government, or any government for that matter, blocks the commercial agreements from even having any opportunity to be made over web site (interenet) connections to Consumers, then it will effectively eliminate any incentive for any broadband providers to change their Closed Walled Garden ANTI-Competitive ways.  The networks need to be more open to options, commercial and technical, options that allow for more competitors ... like this website (InformationWeek) to gain access to onDemand high speed quality bandwidth for things like Video to be delivered with consumer satisfaction.  
User Rank: Strategist
7/17/2014 | 12:16:31 PM
Re: Related update
More competition? Well, that would help for a start, but the trend has been toward consolidation, and the Comcast-NBC merger makes it worse, as content and delivery are mixed together. 

We really need to go back to the common-carrier model; neutral fiber, with competiton and corporate offerings available over them with a level playing field. 

Experimentation? Sure, great idea, but we already have a couple dozen successful municipal FTTH operations, which provide high-bandwidth connections at half or less of the cost of the cable and telco - provided offerings. Congress and the FCC seem to be doing the best that they can to kill them. And fiber when provided by Verizon FIOS seems to have been a wonderful idea but they stopped deploying it. 

Look, broadband is the infrastructure of our time, the Interstate Highway of the 21st century. It is being hijacked by a few large corporations. It should be provided as a government service, just like highways,  for the benefit of everyone.  

And don't get me started on mobile. How stupid can you get to have multiple overpriced mediocre systems which are incompatible, and which tie handsets to a specific network, and prevents them from talking on a the other network, thus requiring redundent towers in profitable markets and spotty or no access in rural areas?  

 As Susan Crawford states: "First, the relevant market for everyone is (or should be) high-capacity, low-latency, symmetrical fiber connections to homes and businesses of at least 100Mbps. That's what they have in South Korea, Japan, Sweden, and (soon) Australia and China. Right now, the vast majority of Americans are stuck with the cable guys' product, which is very expensive (three or four times as expensive for the same download services as in other countries) and second-best (because it doesn't provide symmetrical, or equal, upload capacity). It's not fiber, and it's under the complete price/service control of individual companies that, again, are subject to neither oversight nor competition and have no incentive to make the upgrade to fiber."
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
7/17/2014 | 12:40:05 PM
Re: Related update
Laurie, I saw this. More polictical pandering to corporations at the expense of the public. Hopefully the senate will strip the provision.
Charlie Babcock
Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
7/17/2014 | 4:19:47 PM
An oversupply of fiber with an undersupply of competition?
For years there's been an oversupply of fiber optic cable in the ground, but there's an undersupply of competition in providing broadband. That's because the cable already in the ground doesn't infiltrate every neighborhood and it takes a cable supplier to provide the last mile to consumers? Someone explain the oversupply/undersupply dichotomoy to me.
User Rank: Ninja
7/17/2014 | 5:01:29 PM
Re: An oversupply of fiber with an undersupply of competition?
Charlie, the dichotomy is because:

- Generally, incumbents own the middle mile fiber

- Some limited access to middle mile fiber is offered, at reasonable rates, but only for those in the "incumbent provider" club. Any new entrant to the market must pay a premium.

- The last mile is almost never shared. The telcos are using a different technology from the cable companies, anyway, so this wouldn't make sense... UNLESS there were other competitive telcos or cable companies in any given market. And, as we're seeing, there's more industry consolidation than there is competition.

Therefore, no competition. The concept of forbidding those who service middle mile networks from also servicing last mile is called "unbundling," and it has demonstrably worked in Europe. That's another thing we could do: force providers to choose which one they provide to. That would create a marketplace of last mile providers.
User Rank: Ninja
7/18/2014 | 2:17:37 PM
Of course...
...the very same people who have the most to gain from the abandonment of net neutrality will fight the the hardest to retain their privileged positions in the consumer broadband market (ones that would have been impossible without the municipal franchises that were deregulated by the Telecommunications Act).  In a competitive market, net neutrality wouldn't even be an issue because it would be to the benefit of ISPs and customers alike, but we don't have that market and aren't likely to get it unless Congress intervenes.  In the mean time, I think a short, simple net neutrality mandate makes sense, but we probably won't get one.

Tony A
Tony A,
User Rank: Moderator
7/18/2014 | 2:43:28 PM
The Bandwidth Wars
Mr. Feldman has now written about half a dozen different articles trying to tell us that everything is fine, why we shouldn't worry about the federal court ruling on net neutrality, how the free market will solve any problems on its own, etc. This is usually a good indication that someone has a lucrative consulting or lobbying contract with a cable company or consortium or some other interested party (like a libertarian think tank). But lacking direct evidence of that let's just say that he uses a good variety of rhetorical tricks to divert attention from the obvious. Characterizing objections to the microcontrol of network packets by interested ISP's as "class warfare" is a cute way of dismissing the ire of the Internet communicty at the idea of putting wider pipes up for sale (or holding them hostage to competing interests). Maybe chain restaurants should get a larger piece of the water main than Joe's Diner? Good fundraiser for Asheville, I would think! But that is not the way a democracy works. The Internet is in effect a public utility and needs to be regulated. But Feldman thinks competition is going to solve the problem, a point that is de rigeur for any libertarian, and thus more a piece of ideology than a fact of economics. So just what is his evidence anyway? That he has two choices for broadband at home and four at work and he gets better response time at work! (Bring the kids to work to play those video games, Jonathan.) Question: what else is different at work for Mr. Feldman? Because whether four ISP's or forty ISP's are able to sell bandwidth to Netflix or ESPN or whomever, none of them are going to pass up that opportunity in order to let Riot Games or, say, Vimeo, open a similar pipe if they're not going to pony up. None of them are going to tell Netflix to go ahead and compete with their own paid content. In any case deregulation always results in less competition and more monopolization; cf. bank deregulation (a well-known marvel of free market economikcs). So I think Mr. Feldman is at best contradicting himself, suggesting that deregulating net neutrality is fine and that competition will solve any problems.
User Rank: Moderator
7/18/2014 | 3:49:48 PM
internet business outside the urban cluster
Class warfare? Competition? Net neutrality?

I wonder, have any of the experts looked at the business of the internet with respect to the continuing urbanization across the globe? If the citiies are where the money is, what happens to the country?


Who was it who promoted "Thinking out of the box", maybe we should also consider "Thinking out of the city" in terms of the national defense, equal opportunities, and the pursuit of happiness.
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