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Commentary

Net Neutrality: Let's Move Beyond Class Warfare

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: Speedtest.net 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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