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Seeking the Middle Ground on Net Neutrality

portableTypical for a controversial topic, many people have fairly strong opinions about the effect of the recent FCC vote to repeal the government's 2015 Net neutrality rules (see, for example, today's No Jitter post by communications technology attorney Martha Buyer).

After more than one attempt to create formal Net neutrality rules (and losing court battles in 2010), in 2015 the FCC reclassified broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. Now, broadband providers won't be considered common carriers, and although the FCC established "transparency" requirements, it essentially transferred oversight to the FTC. As Buyer wrote in another recent No Jitter article on Net neutrality, this may not be adequate.

Is It This or That?

Although government deregulation is a common operating theme for the Republican party, many find the FCC's claim in the formal announcements that the ruling "restore(s) the longstanding, bipartisan light-touch regulatory framework that has fostered rapid Internet growth, openness, and freedom for nearly 20 years" to be disingenuous. Rapid growth and openness have occurred, despite what some might consider a heavy-handed regulatory environment (including repeated FCC actions that attempted to enforce Net neutrality long before the 2015 rules). One of the Net neutrality goals was openness and freedom from a consumer standpoint. Skeptics of the FCC's recent action might claim the new rules only benefit the providers.

However, skeptics might be being a bit alarmist as they wail "this is the end of the Internet as we know it." Shouldn't the Internet evolve; is any change inherently bad?

Some changes may be appropriate and even overdue -- including shifting costs to the heaviest users of the Internet. The argument that Internet access should be treated like a utility may have some merit, but all other utilities (electrical, water, gas, etc.) are billed according to usage. Rates may be regulated, but heavy consumption produces larger bills. If the Net neutrality defendants focus on the potential for rates to change (increase) due to usage models, then finding justification may be difficult.

Mixed Blessing?

A more valid concern would be the potential for broadband providers to block or restrict traffic based on back-end business relationships. This is especially true when the broadband provider is also a content provider. For example, what's to prevent Comcast from providing priority routing for its own content over traffic from a competitor such as Netflix or Hulu? Some folks would counter that the user can just switch to a different provider, such as the local telco. But perhaps not all of the desired content is available via the alternative carrier. And consumers in many areas, especially rural markets, don't have multiple broadband provider choices.

At the same time, allowing broadband providers to block undesired content and sources might potentially decrease illicit and dark web activity. But who would be the judge of appropriate content? Providers could potentially censor based on personal beliefs, including religious or political views.

Although Net neutrality supporters scoff at the idea that innovation has been stifled under the previous rules, providers could potentially enact some welcome changes, if implemented properly. Given its "best effort" nature, trusting the Internet for real-time communications is risky. That's why many corporate networks still rely on MPLS networks and other deterministic WAN solutions. If the Internet could support traffic classes that resulted in better network options for critical traffic flows (at affordable rates), the benefits could touch nearly all users. Of course, skeptics would say the only innovation that will take place are new ways for the broadband providers to make more money.

Many broadband providers claim that a different revenue model would produce the funds they need to build out more infrastructure. Skeptics wonder if that will really happen, especially in rural areas where the returns don't justify the investments.

Could lack of regulation produce improvements? It's possible, especially if the providers can attach revenue to new features. Could lack of regulation lead to abusive practices, or will market forces be an adequate deterrent? Net neutrality foes argue that bad behavior would be rare and, should it occur, be punished by marketplace reactions. However, there are many examples of un-regulated industries mistreating consumers in the pursuit of profits. Net neutrality supporters base their fear on a lack of trust in broadband providers.

And that, perhaps, is the crux of one's point of view. If you believe broadband providers will play fair with equal content access, privacy protections, and open policies while bringing new services, then the FCC's decision to repeal Net neutrality regulation could be good news. If you're a skeptic, then your best hope may be for a change in the political balance -- but only time will tell if doomsday has arrived.

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

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