Net Neutrality Proponents Spurning FCC Proposal for Wrong Reasons

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2014-04-27

Net Neutrality Proponents Spurning FCC Proposal for Wrong Reasons

Before the Federal Communications Commission even had a chance to look at the revised Open Internet rules being proposed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the agency was already being slammed by advocacy groups on what they thought he might propose.

In fact Common Cause was calling the proposal "a major step backward." Those rules would allow ISPs to negotiate fees for major bandwidth users such as Netflix and YouTube to assure they have access to Web capacity. But is this really the case?

Common Cause has trotted out a former FCC commissioner, Michael Copps, now an advisor to the organization, who said in a statement released to the media, "If the commission subverts the Open Internet by creating a fast lane for the 1 percent and slow lanes for the 99 percent, it would be an insult to both citizens and to the promise of the Net."

The organization then suggests that Wheeler's proposals, which would allow major users to pay for their increased needs, somehow threaten democracy itself.

As you might expect, FCC Chairman Wheeler disagrees, calling such suggestions, "flat out wrong." What Wheeler lays out in a blog entry is that he's proposing some changes in the commission's rules that would allow payments for bandwidth as long as they're "commercially reasonable."

However, he notes that the FCC would not allow unfair pricing and would prohibit any blocking of legal content. In addition, his proposal would prohibit unreasonable charges or any actions that harm consumers. Wheeler also said in his blog entry that pricing must be transparent to customers.

Wheeler also notes that the FCC is constrained in the actions it can take following a ruling earlier this year by the U.S. Court of Appeals that struck down efforts by the commission to make Internet providers subject to the same rules as common carriers, such as phone companies, without actually classifying them that way.

Because of the ruling, the commission basically had to choose whether to make the Internet into a land of common carriers, or to find some other way to get a handle on the ISPs that control much of what consumers get to do.

The problem is that advocacy groups such as Common Cause don't appear to have a grasp on reality, nor do they understand how the Internet today works. For example, the suggestion by former Commissioner Copps that the proposed changes to the Open Internet rules allowing ISPs to negotiate bandwidth charges with major users such as Netflix or YouTube ignores the fact that these services account for more than 50 percent of all Internet traffic at some times during the day. That's hardly the 1 percent Copps suggests.


Net Neutrality Proponents Spurning FCC Proposal for Wrong Reasons

Other statements by such organizations are similarly suspect. The charge that such entities would raise their rates to offset bandwidth charges is probably correct, but how does that affect net neutrality? No one is forced to pay such charges unless they want to subscribe to Netflix. The proposed FCC rules would still prevent the blocking of any legal content, so the alleged threats to democracy simply don't hold water.

This fuss has been around for quite a while now although the focus has changed. When I examined this issue back in 2006, the real concerns were that ISPs would force unreasonable charges in areas where there was no competition. But the FCC, and competition, have kept a lid on that. So now we get the question of whether being asked to pay more to get more bandwidth constitutes a threat to net neutrality.

But this isn't an area in which there's a shortage of experience. I already have that option and so do many, if not most, Internet users in the United States. I subscribe to a fiber-based service provided by my regional phone company, and I can get more bandwidth if I'm willing to pay more money. Right now, I pay for 50M bps service. I could get more for a higher monthly charge and a lower charge if I want my access to the Internet to operate more slowly.

To take the charges by Common Cause seriously, I would have to suggest that everyone should get the fastest possible access for the same price. But this makes no sense. If I don't need super-fast Internet access, why should I pay for it? Right now, I'm willing to pay what I do for Internet access to satisfy my own impatience.

But the reality is, despite the bandwidth I'm willing to pay for, I see the same Internet. The information available to me doesn't change. I just pay less for it. But because those Netflix users out there are soaking up a ton of bandwidth, chances are I'm helping subsidize it.

Is it fair that I pay more than I should so that Neflix users can get access to the bandwidth they need to watch videos any time they want to even if I'm not a Netflix subscriber?

Quite frankly, it seems to me that Common Cause and the other advocates arguing against this proposal have it backward. Heavy bandwidth users should pay for the resources they consume.


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