The Politics of Net Neutrality

Opinion: The issue is more about getting votes than unlimited access to the Net.

My views of Net neutrality first started to be formulated when I found myself at the bar of the Holiday Inn near the Boston airport a little over a year ago. Sitting next to me was Dr. Rene Alvarez, a surgeon who lives and works in Homer, Alaska. Dr. Alvarez treats a variety of patients, and he spends some time in Alaskas back country.

During our discussion, he told me how entire communities would band together so that they could afford a single computer and Internet connection. It was vital, he explained, that such communities continue to be able to have access to the Internet and that their users not be limited to specific Web sites or Internet services.

Now, more than a year later, another person – also in Boston – brought up the subject again. "What had happened to Net neutrality?" she wondered. This person, who asked that her name not be used so that she wont suffer repercussions at work, pointed out that she hadnt heard much lately.

In Washington, where Im based, weve been hearing quite a lot about Net neutrality. The issue is, in some respects, the same as it was a year ago. By that I mean that nobody really agrees on what "Net neutrality" actually means. In that sense, its much like other broad, often misused terms cropping up these days such as "municipal wireless."

In the case of Net neutrality, however, there seems to have been a sinister turn. What was once viewed as a catch-all phrase that referred to the ability of Internet users to reach everything on the Internet has now morphed into a phrase that seems to refer to requiring all carriers to provide all services for the same price. In other words, if you want a 10M-bps connection to the Internet, you should pay no more for it than you do for your 500 kilobit connection.

This is another way in which the current Net neutrality movement resembles the municipal wireless movement. The idea, apparently, is that the carriers involved have limitless resources, so its perfectly fair to ask them to provide something for nothing.

As you know, this concept hasnt worked well in the municipal wireless world, and its unlikely that it will work any better in the world of high-speed Internet access. Carriers have to make a profit at a service, or theyre not going to provide it. Increase their costs without letting them charge for the added expense, and youll see the profits and thus the service disappear.

Those basic facts of economics should surprise no one. Its one thing to simply insist that ISPs give customers what they already give them, which is access to the full Internet. Its another thing entirely to insist that those same customers should also have unlimited bandwidth without having to pay for it. The first costs the ISPs and carriers nothing; the second can be hugely expensive.

Of course, these fine distinctions mean little in Washington. What matters here is getting votes. This being the eve of an election year, you can bet that something-for-nothing arguments will show up to great fanfare. Pressure groups espousing one position or another are already starting to make noise.

Right now, its hard to know what pressure groups support what in terms of Net neutrality because every side that has a position claims to be in favor of it. Sadly, finding out exactly what these groups are in favor of leads to little new information. The problem is that when the hearings start in Congress, which will happen in time for the proceedings to be reflected in the campaign literature of anyone whos running for anything, the meaning is unlikely to be any more precise.

This lack of understanding on the part of the Congress is a huge danger for all sides of the Net neutrality debate. The danger is that legislation will be crafted that results in less Internet access at higher cost. This cant be good for anyone – except maybe for those who would then use the solution as the next way to get elected.

eWEEK Labs Technical Analyst Wayne Rash can be reached at

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Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...