"Network neutrality" is a concept that's getting a lot of play in certain circles, especially those designed by L'Enfant. The idea is that Internet service providers (ISPs) should be prevented by law from discriminating against any Internet content or source, and that consumers have full say in how they use the Internet.
Recently, however, a few large ISPs -- notably BellSouth and AT&T (formerly SBC) -- have stated they’re investigating charging content providers based on volume of traffic and/or quality of service. This could include charging, say, Movielink to deliver its movies faster than normal, or video game hosts for a lower-latency experience. These issues and others are discussed in a recent article in the WSJ (subscription required). Both BellSouth and AT&T have committed to not blocking any content providers.
We all know this isn’t true, however, and we should thank ISPs for blocking some content. (Disclaimer: My employer is a large ISP/cable company; these opinions are mine only, and do not reflect the official position of this company.) Viruses, trojans, worms, and spam are among the content currently blocked by most ISPs. Some block phishing attempts, too. Yet few consumer groups howl in protest.
Paying for performance on the Internet makes a lot of sense. While its origins are as a government-funded network, the vast majority of investment over the past few decades has been private, at-risk capital. Why shouldn’t the shareholders of AT&T, BellSouth, and others expect to be paid for using these assets? Why should consumers shoulder the burden, as they do now (last I checked, Amazon and the WSJ don’t contribute to my Comcast bill)? If content providers wish to differentiate their products, and consumers are willing to fund this premium, why shouldn’t ISPs develop the mechanisms to do so?
The market will severely punish any who misbehave. For example, should AT&T block access to Google because the latter wouldn’t pay for bandwidth costs, AT&T’s DSL subscribers would flock to cable.
This concept isn’t so foreign. Many commuters pay to travel on limited-access turnpikes, or pay to use a “cruise card” thus avoiding stopping at tollbooths. Why, then, are those purporting to be advocating for consumers up in arms over the potential creation of a market for Internet turnpikes?
Thus far all the attention has been focused on DSL and cable companies, mostly due to the statements from AT&T and BellSouth. What I’ve not yet seen, however, are similar network neutrality demands placed on wireless carriers. One should marvel at the tight-fisted control the carriers have maintained over their networks. At what point do public interest groups and lawmakers decide these carriers are essentially utilities, and attempt to enact such legislation?
Really, what are the differences between a cable company’s HFC plant and the wireless networks? Both were built with private capital. Both are used for a growing number of communications and entertainment services. One could make the argument that since the wireless networks use public spectrum (admittedly carriers paid dearly for their licenses), the public has even more rights to these networks. Where are the demands that cable companies frequently see in franchise negotiations, such as bandwidth for public use? Given the communications problems public safety officials experience in times of emergency (e.g., 9/11, Katrina), one would think there would be an even greater demand for public use of the carriers’ private networks.
But this hasn’t happened. Yet. And it shouldn’t. Let consumers decide who gets their business, and ISPs will make network decisions based on this environment.
Lastly, I noodled for a bit over how to categorize this post. It should be "business" or "technology," but it ended up in "politics." Hopefully politicians won't meddle in this market.