Network Neutrality: The Story and the Non-Story

In recent days there has been a good deal of publicity about the concept of network neutality, a requirement that broadband network operators not discriminate against unaffiliated content and application providers. There will even be a Congressional hearing Tuesday on the topic.

I’ve personally been raising the net neutrality issue, in one form or another, for seven years. Yet I have a hard time getting energized about the current fight.

Jeff Chester’s article in The Nation gives a nice synopsis of the concerns. Jeff has also assembled a very useful set of documents on the issue, including white papers from equipment vendors such as Cisco describing just how operators could discriminate against or block services. And Ed Whitacre, CEO of the “new” AT&T, has been quite up-front about his desire to charge services like Google for the privilege of reaching his broadband subscribers.

Catherine Yang, writing in Business Week, added fuel to the fire by revealing that Verizon’s new FIOS fiber optic network will reserve 80% of its capacity for its own services, leaving just 20% for Google, Amazon.com, eBay, Yahoo!, and the rest of the Net. Ars Technica challenges these claims, arguing that Verizon’s FIOS plans anticipate allocating 640 megabits per second of broadband data capacity to each 32-node home in its service area, eventually increasing to 2.4 gigabits per second. In other words, even though the data “lane” is dwarfed by the private IP television “lane” (which is allocated 3.5 gigabits per second in Verizon’s current deployment), it’s plenty wide for everyone else.

I was one of the first people to raise and publicize the threat that closed broadband networks could pose for the unbridled Internet, in a Release 1.0 piece called “The Future of Internet 2.0” published in February 1999. I’m very sympathetic to what the network neutrality advocated want — heck, I’d put myself in that category too. Yet I just can’t help feeling that it’s all too little, too late. Network neutrality is getting traction in Washington DC precisely because there’s no longer any real possibility of shifting the architecture of the broadband Internet through public policy. It’s a safe way to make noise about the importance of competition and innovation.

I’m pessimistic because, over the past seven years, the incumbent broadband operators have put billions of dollars of network equipment into the ground, while the competitors who could have provided a check to their closed approaches have largedly died (or been killed) off. It’s heartening to see the tech industry, including Google, taking on the net neutrality fight aggressively. On the other hand, when there was a real opportunity to influence the debate, only a few tech companies such as Microsoft and Amazon.com were willing to stick their necks out on network neutrality.

The pressure around network neutality did force the FCC to issue a policy statement supporting the concept in principle. I suspect this will have more influence in a few years than anyone anticipates, when the FCC finds cause to point to its language. In the near term, though, the policy statement has no binding force. And I have a hard time imagining Congress doing anything more than jawboning the broadband operators to make some equally vague commitment to openness.

So, I’m afraid to say, something of the Internet as we’ve known it is likely to be lost. Just how much depends on the possibility of real alternative broadband networks, and just how powerful Web-based service providers like Google and Yahoo! really are. If these companies can route around the network operators, or if customers are truly more concerned about the quality of their Google experience than the quality of their Verizon experience, there will be a reasonable check on broadband discrimination. That could still hurt smaller companies and non-commercial activities, which don’t have the economic heft to counter the incumbent broadband operators. But I think that’s the world we’re going to live in.

I hope my friends among the network neutrality advocates will prove me wrong.