A federal appeals court earlier this week neutered the FCC's Net neutrality rules, which prevented carriers like Verizon and Comcast from interfering with other carriers' traffic. It's a freak-out moment for many, including the Los Angeles Times, which wrote a headline "Bow to Comcast and Verizon, your overlords." Not quite.
Here's the stated problem: The big carriers (notably Comcast) have already shown that, left to their own devices, they will start picking and choosing which data streams should be fast, slow, or simply blocked. That means that the carrier, not the person who pays the bills, is in charge of what will and won't work from end to end. So, enterprises could be in the position of having selected a VoIP-as-a-service provider, tested the provider, and then having service degrade, not because there is a legitimate engineering issue, but because the carrier has decided to deprioritize (or drop) packets between the provider and the enterprise.
Proponents of Net neutrality say that regulations that force carriers to treat all packets the same is the right way to fix this problem, and that, absent Net neutrality, carriers will discriminate against competitors. It's a compelling argument: Why wouldn't AT&T want to mess with Vonage? Why wouldn't any cable provider want to mess with Netflix or Hulu?
[Learn more about the court ruling. See FCC Net Neutrality Rules Rejected.]
Yet, I fundamentally disagree that Net neutrality is the right thing for the FCC or others to focus on. The right thing to focus on is encouraging a broadband free market. A true free market allows consumers to switch when they're not getting what they paid for. Even in today's market, where there are only two or three choices, if a large company's IP voice traffic starts getting messed with by AT&T, let me assure you that AT&T will be minus one customer.
From the consumer standpoint, let me also assure you that the second that Netflix starts getting messed with by a cable provider, Netflix's software will pop up a message on the consumer's screen that says: "For best service, you may wish to switch to XYZ provider in your area."
The trouble is that historically, broadband is not a truly free market, since, typically, there are only two consumer broadband providers in any given community. Enterprises typically have more than two choices, yet pricing is normally baselined at the consumer level, since consumer service is far more common. I have been witness to a third provider entering my market, followed by drops in price and increases in capacity.
In recent years, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) provided grants to build out more broadband infrastructure. This helped to make the broadband business far more competitive than it has ever been, since part of the "strings attached" to the grant money was that carriers must allow others open access to the fiber. The private sector has also contributed to competition: Google singlehandedly raised "fiber optic" to public and economic development consciousness. Smaller municipal successes like Gig Tank have also fueled investment interest in middle-mile networks.
Net neutrality isn't a bad thing to focus on, but I worry that too much regulation could really drag down the Internet. You have only to look at the antique and slow-moving common carrier telecom regulation environment to see that this worry is founded in reality.
Why am I worried about burdensome regulation? You see, the FCC originally crafted its Net neutrality rules classifying Internet service as "information services," not a common carrier telecommunications service. Since the court struck down Net neutrality largely based on this classification, it is possible that the FCC may reclassify Internet service as telecom, making it subject to a vast quagmire of obsolete and awful regs.
The larger -- and more productive -- issue for the FCC to focus on would be how to foster more broadband competition. Let me guarantee you that without competition, no amount of regulation will help prevent bad things from happening. Without competition, prices and capacity stay the same.
Bottom line, I don't think that enterprise CIOs have anything to worry about, for now. Carriers would be idiots to start messing with the very customers that keep the best metrics about service delivery: enterprise customers.
And in general, the Internet is not going to melt down because of a lack of Net neutrality. But choice will be seriously affected if growth in competition doesn't continue. And the best way to kill new entrants into the market would be to significantly increase regulatory burden on Internet providers. Whatever the FCC does in response to the ruling, let's hope that it's not that.
Jonathan Feldman writes for InformationWeek on the topics of leadership, innovation, IT people skills, and running large organizations "like a startup." He is CIO for the City of Asheville, N.C., where he encourages innovation through better business technology and process.
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