You’d think our government would take a stand on internet access, but guess what? They punt. Yesterday the FCC launched a fuzzy new blog that talks out of both sides of its mouth. It’s all about the issue of network neutrality, which seems simple at first: the internet should be free and open — no variable pricing, no limits on access, no one blocking your content. Sounds good, right?
Before we explain the FCC’s double standard, let’s dig deeper to see the flip side of unshackled internet use — the painfully slow email downloads in your home office thanks to the teen next door downloading fat movie files, the fact that the United States trails Sweden and Korea in bandwidth speeds. If you’ve ever waited for downloads, you realize the web has costs. The words you’re reading now, on this blog, aren’t free at all, but rather the lucky result of over-building during the 1990s internet bubble. You can watch videos at Hulu today because silly companies got silly stock options back in 1997, and investors jacked up the network infrastructure. And guess what? Your prepaid pipes are getting full.
So the internet issue has two sides — keep all access equal, or allow providers more control to raise money for the strapped global network. As with any scarce resource, the network neutrality concept has fierce advocates (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft) and opponents (your cable company), and no wonder — the companies who profit by sending stuff free over pipes want it kept that way, and the firms that pay for those pipes want to be able to charge more to keep them working. In perhaps the strongest argument against network neutrality, telecoms argue that if they could charge heavy web users more for access, they’d be able to fund future advances in internet technology. That is no more unfair that Apple charging $599 for its first iPhone to fund the production build-out that now allows you, two years later, to pick one up for 99 bucks. Early adopters, like heavy internet users, had the most need, and they were willing to pay more — a wealth transfer that ended up supporting the rest of the population. So why not?
Who’s right? The FCC says everybody.
So back to the Federal Communications Commission. The new FCC OpenInternet.gov blog sounds, in name and tone, like it’s promoting network neutrality. Chairman Julius Genachowski speaks with phrases such as “the fifth principle is one of non-discrimination — stating that broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular internet content or applications.” But wait — Genachowski quickly adds caveats. “This principle will not prevent broadband providers from reasonably managing their networks. During periods of network congestion, for example, it may be appropriate for providers to ensure that very heavy users do not crowd out everyone else.” Um, what?
Genachowski concludes the FCC will make decisions “on a case-by-case basis.” So … cable companies and telecoms should not discriminate against any internet users … unless they need to. They shouldn’t charge more for usage … unless required to reasonably manage their network. The FCC will enforce this … with ad hoc decisions.
If you’re confused, so are we.
Perhaps it’s too much to ask that a government bureaucracy take a clear stand on internet access in an age where suggesting we expand health coverage gets seniors, now on government-funded Medicare, screaming about government socialism. The only clarity we found on the FCC’s site was a link to a Digg-style ranking of user suggestions. Here, the public’s wishes rise to the top. Bring U.S. broadband pricing in line with the rest of the world. Promote telecommuting. End unreal claims of internet speeds. Heck, catch up with Korea’s pipe speeds, where people stream TV shows on cell phones.
The public wants bandwidth, and they want it fast. The FCC says it’s listening and it wants “freedom”. But as with any public good, we suspect eventually someone will have to pay for it.