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Net Neutrality and the Obama Stimulus Package

Tom Evslin

As long as US telecom is duopoly dominated, a neutral Internet is endangered if not impossible; regulation of this kind of concentrated power is necessary but is unlikely to be sufficient. The solution, IMHO, is to dilute the power of the duopoly so that consumers can buy whatever kind of Internet access they want. Countries like the UK with a competitive ISP market do not seem to have net neutrality problems nor require net neutrality regulation and have better Internet access than we do at lower prices.

Whatever portion of the Obama stimulus package is devoted to telecommunication should be directed away from the incumbent telcos and cablecos — whose lobbyists are indubitably doing their job and already lining up for the lion's share of federal funds — and used to create infrastructure on which competition can flourish (ideas to follow). It will be a huge squandered opportunity and a misuse of public funds if the telecom infrastructure project ends up reinforcing the telco-cableco duopoly which now controls most of our Internet access.

A Wall Street Journal article on Google's hopes to locate servers within carrier networks alleges that this plan is evidence that Google has abandoned its fervent support for net neutrality. Such a change of heart is denied by Google's Rick Witt, who points out, correctly, that what Google seeks to do for its own content is no different than what Akamai and other commercial caching providers already do for content providers. The story aroused extra passion because it also says that advisors close to President-elect Obama are "softening" their positions on net neutrality. At least one such advisor, Larry Lessig, who is justly famed for inventing creative commons licensing, denies on his blog that he has changed his mind, although he does say "Some friends in the network neutrality movement as well as some scholars believe it [his own long-held position on net neutrality] is wrong — that it doesn't go far enough."

Larry's last sentence points out part of the problem with net neutrality regulation; it's almost impossible to write workable definitions. Fervent supporters of the concept of net neutrality disagree on what is or isn't a violation of such neutrality. There is a huge danger that any regulation would result in further advantage to the incumbents who are accustomed to using regulation to their advantage. Would you want to wait for the FCC to certify your new service neutral before you could introduce it?

On the other hand, it's easy to recognize the virtues of a neutral Internet. With a few exceptions, we've had that so far. The backbone itself delivers packets to anywhere from anywhere without trying to figure out who sent them or what they might contain. It is wide open to innovation. It allows innovative business models whether they're disruptive or not — and whether they will ultimately succeed or not. Friend Om Malik warns "Many startups might skip over this issue, which I constantly bring up, but they need to wake up and realize that in the end they are all going to be impacted if network neutrality is backstabbed to death." He's right.

If we are stuck with the current duopoly, we will need regulation- and face the very real prospect that regulation may be ineffectual or even counterproductive. On the other hand, if we build a national telecom infrastructure upon which competition can flourish — as it does on the highways, for example — we won't need FCC regulation against discrimination any more than we need the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission — founded to regulate Railroad transportation monopolies in 1887, RIP 1995) to regulate trucking.

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If it ain't broke... brooke oberwetter  –  Dec 16, 2008 8:20 AM PDT

Tom,

You say that "with a few exceptions" we've had a neutral Internet (and all of those exceptions fell within the FCC's already-existing statutory authority). So why the need for regulation? Why the need for nationalized infrastructure? You seem very familiar with the dangers of regulation--the rent seeking of the incumbents, the possibility of unintended consequences--but still call for more far-reaching regulation to respond to a problem that you admit doesn't really exist?

And most disturbingly, you think nationalization of the infrastructure will be BETTER? Have you seen a lot of efficient or effective repairs made to interstate highways? Is there a lot of investment going into making the highway system better or more efficient? Does anyone have an incentive to make sure the highways operate as smoothly and effectively as possible? And most important, is traffic well managed on the interstate highway system? Try I-95 my friend.  The answer to all of this questions is a resounding "NO!"

Brooke:You're correct that my concerns are proactive Tom Evslin  –  Dec 16, 2008 8:46 AM PDT

Brooke:

You're correct that my concerns are proactive and not reactive. The reason I think that danger is growing is that the concentration of Internet acess provision in the US is growing. There were many dialup ISPs; in most locations there are just two broadband choices (in rural areas one or none). Moreover, at various times the telcos have announced their intent of using this monopoly power to double-dip by charging providers both for their own access (which is fair) and for the access to the subscribers who have already paid (which is double dipping but is the way telephony works).

Further evidence of monopoly behavior is the failure to improve quality evidenced by the US' slipping rank as a country with broadband access and the slow trend towards capping "unlimited" monthly access. So I think the danger is real.

I'd prefer to see more competition without the need for the government to provide any infrastructure or regulate further. Perhaps this will happen with the enlightened policy of making the TV white spaces available for unlicensed use.

I think the Obama economic stimulus will and should include a broadband component. That money can either make the problem worse in my view by subsidizing the incumbent duopoloy OR it can provide a basis for expanded competition.

As former transportation secretary in Vermont, I do agree that the states and the feds have done a less than ideal job of maintaining the transportation infrastructure. Hopefully that'll change. You are right that a broadband backbone as bad as the I-95 corridor would be a disaster. But the Interstate system in general provided the US with a splendid transportation infrastructure despite some of the unintended consequences of having such excellent transportation.

UK is not entirely neutral wolfkeeper  –  Dec 16, 2008 9:51 AM PDT

Actually the UK recently had a major failure of Network Neutrality on most ISPs for the Wikipedia. All the traffic was clustered through a few servers, and all editing was banned or severely slowed.

This was done under claims of 'child pornography' on an image on a record you've been able to legally buy, and still can, for about 30 years, that depicted somebody who wasn't being abused, and who is of course now much older, and has stated that they had absolutely no problems with the image.

There is much more competition in the UK market though, but the number of ISPs is coming down over time due to consolidation. The UK network is designed to try to avoid duopolies though, which should, mostly, ease the worst NN concerns.

UK even less neutral! brooke oberwetter  –  Dec 16, 2008 2:00 PM PDT

Looks like Virgin Media in the UK is going to start restricting BitTorrent traffic with DPI.

The UK's second largest ISP, Virgin Media, will next year introduce network monitoring technology to specifically target and restrict BitTorrent traffic, its boss has told The Register.

The move will represent a major policy shift for the cable monopoly and is likely to anger advocates of "net neutrality", who say all internet traffic should be treated equally. Virgin Media currently temporarily throttles the bandwidth of its heaviest downloaders across all applications at peak times, rather than targeting and "shaping" specific types of traffic.

The firm argues that its current "traffic management" policy allows it to ensure service quality at peak times for 95 per cent of customers while still allowing peer-to-peer filesharers to download large amounts of data.

the UK experiment Tom Evslin  –  Dec 17, 2008 1:30 PM PDT

Thanks for the link.

Blogged about this today http://blog.tomevslin.com/2008/12/blocking-bittor.html

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