FCC Needs Time for A Sanity Check on Network Neutrality

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2014-05-10

FCC Needs Time for A Sanity Check on Network Neutrality

One of the few sensible things to come out of the public debate on net neutrality over the past few weeks that doesn't seem self-serving is Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel's suggestion that the commission put off further discussion of its Open Internet order for at least a month.

Unfortunately, the whole discussion of what constitutes neutrality has become so distorted by the influx of sacred cows that it resembles a cattle feed lot, smell and all.

On one hand, the companies that make up "big Internet" are calling for an end to any possibility that they be asked to help pay for the traffic they create. They pretend that they're doing all of this in the public interest, but a look at which companies are trying to avoid paying their way shows that they're the very ones that suck up most of the Internet bandwidth.

On the other hand, there are individuals and groups that say that any change in how companies and users pay for the network infrastructure that makes up the Internet will bring doom, the collapse of the U.S. economy and, perhaps, the end of civilization and life as we know it.

The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in between.

The companies that provide the basic network infrastructure have to pay to build and maintain it. Much of what they're being asked to build is ultimately going to support a few very large bandwidth users such as Netflix, which at times eats up half the Internet bandwidth in the United States. One way or the other, they're going to have to build this infrastructure, and one way or another they have to recover their costs. The choice boils down to who pays for it.

The end users who want to consume Internet content understandably want to keep their costs down and most would prefer that they not have to pay extra to download data in the form of movies and the like, even if that means other users have to pay more to support their desires.

Meanwhile, the extreme end of the net neutrality debate says that any cost sharing, no matter how limited and how controlled, means the end of the Internet. But does it? How is that really true?

Many argue that the idea of asking companies such as Netflix to pay for better access somehow discriminates against startup companies. But how would it do that? If FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler plans to create rules that don't allow blocking or marginalizing all legal access, wouldn't startups have the same access as anyone else?


FCC Needs Time for a Sanity Check on Network Neutrality

Remember, no company—Netflix, Facebook or Twitter included—went from zero to network-dominating traffic overnight. Facebook took a decade, while Netflix evolved from shipping DVDs to streaming video over the course of its 14-year history. When they were startups, they didn't need vast quantities of bandwidth.

While the focus on saving startup companies doesn't ring true, there's also the question of where these opponents are getting their information. The proposed Open Internet rules have not been published, after all. Right now, the fuss is about one story in The Wall Street Journal, a publication with dubious technical background. That story was essentially unsourced. If I were to try to push a story so flimsy past my editor here at eWEEK, he would have my head.

Partly, all the angst is happening because even the advocacy groups are being self-serving. They need to show that they're on top of things, even if they don't know for sure what those things are. In a way, they're playing into the hands of the big Internet companies that they otherwise claim to abhor.

Now, it's time to ask the parties on all sides of this debate to show that their assertions are true. But, of course, they won't because so far most of what's being said is just pure speculation. There are no facts of any kind to back their assertions up.

Regardless of which side someone in the net neutrality debate claims to represent, there are some questions that need to be answered: How exactly does asking someone to pay for their bandwidth disadvantage others? How does asking big companies to pay for the cost of extra infrastructure they demand put small companies at risk? Why is it wrong to ask a consumer to pay more for more bandwidth? Or, looked at another way, why is it wrong that I should pay less for bandwidth if I don't need as much?

There are lots of predictions of doom from all sides, but to me they seem to be doom only in the eyes of those beholders. I still don't see any actual evidence that any of this fear-mongering from all sides should be given any credence. Nor do I see why I should have to pay more for my Internet access so someone else can watch movies.

However, just as I was wrapping up this column I got a call from Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association here in Washington, D.C. Ed is not in agreement with me about some of the things I say in this column, but fortunately in this partisan city, we're still happy to discuss our differences.

In this case, Ed and the CCIA feel that the changes that may be proposed by the FCC effectively put the last mile providers into the driver's seat, where they will have too much control.


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