That's right--so-called net neutrality is in jeopardy now that the courts have said that the FCC can relax rules that kept phone and cable companies from treating different kinds of Internet traffic, well, differently. Web commerce and content providers such as Google and Vonage are clamoring for pre-emptive regulations that ensure the status quo. "Allowing broadband carriers to discriminate in favor of certain kinds of services ... would take control away from end users of the Internet and would place it in the hands of those who own the networks," Google VP and Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf said at a U.S. Senate hearing in February. Imagine that: Owners of the Internet's backbone networks would actually exert control over them. John Locke must be spinning in his grave.
With all due respect for Mr. Cerf and his allies, there's less to this issue than meets the eye. Upgrading the Internet to ensure that video, VoIP, and other packets--especially the bandwidth-hogging ones--can be delivered expeditiously and securely costs the network operators tens of billions of dollars. Rather than just jack up their prices, the operators want to finance those upgrades with tiered services, creating "fast lanes" for those Internet passengers that pay extra for the privilege while maintaining the standard lanes for everyone else.
Critics worry that the fast lanes will improve connectivity for the haves (rich, greedy Fortune 500 multinational types) while cutting off or slowing down the have-nots (mom and pop and little Billy), and that the likes of AT&T and Verizon (Ma Bell incarnate, only nastier) will favor their own services to the detriment of others. But this needn't become a zero-sum game.
Just as HOV lanes relieve overall congestion on our nation's highways, so, too, can these premium pipes improve overall service. Drawing a commercial parallel, is FedEx's ability to deliver documents and packages quickly and efficiently "unfair" to companies and consumers who can afford to use only snail mail? It's only a problem if the conventional service degrades as service is improved elsewhere--and there's no reason to assume that will happen on the Internet.
The telecom operators already provide priority delivery of certain customers' Internet traffic through VPN, QoS, and other services. Enhancing that model--offering gold-standard security for financial transactions, for instance, or guaranteed connectivity for health care monitoring--isn't a societal outrage; it's just supply meeting demand. If we want carriers to innovate, let's give them some incentive to do so.
Despite its roots as a government-funded project, the Internet isn't a fixed community asset. It's a network of networks that's only as viable and vibrant as the telecom operators' ongoing investment in its capacity, management, and security. If you fear the slow lane will get slower, imagine how slow it will get if the network operators start neglecting the Internet backbone because it's a lousy investment.
The key, of course, is to ensure that the operators treat others' content on the same terms as they treat their own content. This can be regulated. The FCC approved the merger of SBC Communications and AT&T last year on the condition that the combined operator agree not to block access to, or discriminate against, certain sites or content. Such agreements are enforceable. AT&T chairman Edward Whitacre has said he's perfectly willing to agree to the same conditions to get approval for the BellSouth acquisition.
And even with industry consolidation, the operators don't have the market power, much less the financial incentive, to alienate entire customer segments. Remember how fast local phone company Madison River Communications shaped up last year when it was found to be blocking Vonage VoIP traffic? It's not just horrible PR; it's also an idiotic business practice.
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