Network Neutrality

Earlier this month, as you’ve likely already heard, a panel of Federal Appeals Court Judges issued a decision in favor of Comcast, ruling against Net Neutrality. For now, Comcast (of whom I am not, but my parents (and sisters) are, a subscriber), has promised not to modify their existing network policies that are meant to only throttle ‘heavy’ users (I don’t think they’ve provided a solid definition of ‘heavy’). While the FCC still wants to regulate Broadband, and is in favor of Net Neutrality, this decision stands to set legal precedence crippling the FCC’s ability to do that.

Why is this important? Because currently in the US, Broadband infrastructure is largely controlled by classic media companies, usually Cable providers, who still view the Cable TV business as their primary source of income. However, media consumption patterns are changing dramatically. I watch virtually no television anymore that isn’t time-shifted (there are two reasons my wife and I have Cable TV at this point: 1. A few shows aren’t available for online streaming (MythBusters mainly), or aren’t available in a timely fashion (South Park). 2. My wife likes to turn on MTV or VH1 for Reality TV background noise to relax or when doing other things), I DVR much of what I do watch, or I stream it on Hulu, if possible. For a very small amount of content (primarily BBC shows that don’t come to the US for months, and then tend to be cut up to 15 minutes shorter. I’d pay for iPlayer access, if you’d let me BBC) I will acquire copies through other means, however, I prefer to stream, since it provides at least some advertising revenue for the content producers. That has another set of problems, but I’ve addressed them before.

And that’s ignoring the made-for-the-Internet content I watch. Like Revision3, or The Guild, or my beloved Dr. Horrible. This is content that was made for the Internet as it’s distribution mechanism. Much of it is content that would never make it to more traditional media platforms, which is a shame because much of it is pretty fantastic. With Net Neutrality rules in place, we have a huge potential for a renaissance of media. Without it…well, it’s going to be difficult to move forward.

Generally speaking, I believe that government intervention in business is a bad thing. My problem with the recent health care reform bill (ignoring the fact that it displays a complete lack of understanding of the reality of the high cost of health care in this country), was that I don’t believe the government can possibly be as efficient as private industry. As a state employee, I see countless signs of governmental inefficiency on a daily basis. However, there are places (and admittedly, Health Care could be one of these places) where regulation is warranted. There is a huge amount of regulation over utilities (electrical, water, etc), and other scare resources (RF Spectrum, ie, why the FCC exists in the first place). And that’s important.

I’m of the opinion that we need to begin treating bandwidth as a governmentally-regulated utility, akin to electrical and phone service in the US. This has it’s weaknessed, a lot of electrical companies are struggling because electrical rates on the open market have climbed faster than their ability to raise prices to compensate (incidentally, an event caused by loosing government regulation), however, it does help ensure that important services remain available and affordable. Not that Internet access is more important that electricity (though my father, who works as a bill collecter for a power utility has had people pay their cable bills before their power bills on occasion), but lack of affordable bandwidth is going to become an issue.

Perhaps we need formal legislation to empower the FCC to enforce network neutrality. Perhaps the states could take the lead and begin enforcing this within their own borders first (which my anti-Federalist leanings would love to see). At the end of the day, we’re struggling. Our largest bandwidth providers are also content providers, and their interest is going to fall in line to protect that business, even as the Internet evolves around them.