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Net Neutrality: The FCC Has Picked Our Poison

portableI hate to be all doom and gloom, but anyone following the Net neutrality debate can't be overly optimistic about the future of the Internet. Not that it is going away, but it is hard to imagine how the level of growth, innovation, and human transformation it has spurred can continue given the current direction things are heading.

I think my pessimism stems from the debate's contextual shift. For a brief period, the debate centered on the question of how to maintain Net neutrality. How do we ensure an open Internet that allows for the same level of innovation and transformational change we have experienced over the last two decades?

Today the debate centers on who will control the Internet: the federal government or "Big TeleCableCom."

What a choice. I hate to be sounding like the glass is half empty here, but glass A contains hemlock and glass B contains arsenic. Hmmm. Which glass do you want?

While I run the risk of offending everyone with the next few statements, I think it is important to note that one of the biggest problems with the debate is that the answer doesn't fit neatly with either political party's worldview.

Forgive me for a myriad of upcoming gross overgeneralizations, but we need to understand why we are in such a pickle with this. Conservatives look at Net neutrality as government meddling with private businesses. They called President Barack Obama's Net neutrality plan "Obamacare for the Internet." They suggest that the free market will sort things out on its own.

The problem with this argument, one I wish I could support, is that this isn't a free market -- nor has it ever been. The big telecom and cable companies have been subsidized, protected, and regulated from the very beginning. Their prevalent monopoly status has been the norm for more than 100 years. Not only has the government allowed this to happen, it has been an active participant.

But the idea that the government can control the Internet successfully, favored by many liberals, is naive at best and insane at worst. Freedom has been the Internet's greatest asset: Winners and losers are mostly defined by their success in the marketplace and not by their size or government influence. And while the government can indeed promote competition, it also has the propensity to restrict it. Hands-on government regulation of the Internet could have an impact on everything from access to free speech. And we aren't even talking yet about Internet taxation.

As I read the Net neutrality statement FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler issued last week, I was encouraged to see he is finally pushing for action. He is clearly supporting an open and free Internet.

But as I read on, I discovered two deeply troubling gotchas -- two poisonous drinks from which to chose.

The Hemlock Glass: In a bit of a pivot, the FCC is advocating Title II classification for the Internet. This plan, suggested by Obama, gives the FCC extensive regulatory authority over the Internet. This would put the Internet's future into the hands of a small group of political appointees who, by their own admission, would be very open minded as to the Title II provisions they would and wouldn't enforce. The prospects of where this could lead are too numerous to fathom, but it is nearly impossible to imagine the freedom, openness, and nimbleness of the Internet continuing with the FCC in control.

The Arsenic Glass: As soon as Obama spoke out on Net neutrality, AT&T immediately announced a pullback on investment plans until the issue was settled. Its argument, or threat, was that it wouldn't make expansive needed infrastructure investments in such an environment. Since the FCC wants to see expanded high-speed bandwidth across the fruited plain, it obviously felt the need, or pressure, to throw something of benefit to the carriers.

In his statement, Wheeler offers the following bone for the carriers: "To preserve incentives for broadband operators to invest in their networks, my proposal will modernize Title II, tailoring it for the 21st century, in order to provide returns necessary to construct competitive networks. For example, there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling."

This would allow for the carriers, which are operating in a protective monopoly/duopoly market in most of America, to receive none of the consumer-oriented regulations contained in Title II. Wheeler is basically saying we will promote "competitive networks" by limiting competition and allow the protected carriers to do whatever they want pricing wise. This could expand the carriers' monopoly over access -- the biggest problem of the Internet today. While they would be somewhat restricted in handling traffic, they would still control access, which could become even more of a problem as bandwidth requirements continue to expand.

The question is: Why did Wheeler feel a need to throw a bone to the carriers? Could it be they comprise one of the highest lobbying groups in the country? Could it be his bias as a former lobbyist himself? Or is he so shortsighted he bought into the threats of not expanding and saw that is the only option to expand broadband?

At the end of the day, the choice between arsenic or hemlock is even worse than we thought.

Wheeler is suggesting we drink them both.


"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communication technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.

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