Net Neutrality Enters the Twilight Zone

tzIn the telecom world we are not very used to our issues getting a lot of notice from the public. But it’s obvious that net neutrality has become a political issue as much as it is an industry issue. Compared to the normal way we do business as an industry the debate has entered the twilight zone. This all got started when new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that he was proposing new rules that would allow for the creation of an Internet ‘fast lane’, By that he meant that the FCC is going to allow the large ISPs to charge large content providers for premium access to their networks.

Of course, Chairman Wheeler is not himself neutral in this decision having spent years as the head lobbyist for the cable industry and opposing net neutrality. It’s somewhat ironic that he made this new announcement at the annual cable show with his cable company peers. The headlines that day made it sound like the FCC was going to take a legitimate shot at maintaining net neutrality, but within days it became understood that the fast lane idea was just the opposite and that he was handing the cable companies exactly what they wanted.

What I don’t think that Wheeler expected was that the public would jump all over his idea. And so, before the proposal was even released the Internet companies like Google and NetFlix weighed in against it. A huge number of consumer groups and many citizens weighed in against it.

And so, quite unexpectedly, the Chairman announced yesterday that he is changing the proposed rule, one that hasn’t even been released yet. He said that the revised rules would allow for ISPs to charge companies like NetFlix and Amazon for faster access to customers, but that non-paying companies would not be put into the slow lane. This makes no sense and is political double-speak. From a network engineering perspective you either give priority to bits or you don’t. If some companies get priority routing, then all other traffic gets degraded. That is the only way it can work on a network and no amount of regulatory talks can change the way that bits operate.

The idea gets even more bizarre if you think it through. What happens if 20 companies pay Comcast for priority access? Does the one who pays the most get slightly more priority than number two, and so on? The fact is that networks can’t do that. Bits are either prioritized or they are not, and so if a lot of companies pay for priority access we end up back where we are today for those companies, while the rest of the Internet would get degraded service.

One thing that pushes this into the Twilight Zone is that Rasmussen did a push poll on the topic and concluded that only 21% of Americans are in favor of net neutrality. Push polls are generally only used for hot button political topics where somebody wants to prove the opposite of what’s true. In this case, the main question of the poll was, “Should the FCC regulate the Internet like it does radio and television”. None of the questions asked had anything to do with net neutrality and instead were designed to elicit a specific negative response. Obviously there are dozens of better ways to have asked the public about net neutrality, including actually asking about it.

I have not conducted a poll, but I traveled all last week and in conversation I asked a number of people what they thought about the idea that the ISPs could give some companies priority access, which implies that others would get something less. Nobody thought that was a good idea and the general consensus was to leave things working the way they are. I believe there will be a huge amount of public discontent should the ISPs be allowed to break the Internet.

I don’t think Chairman Wheeler has any comprehension how important the Internet is to most people. He is skirting with making a huge blunder if he allows the Internet to get screwed up. He is making himself the public face of how the Internet functions, and if he breaks it people will blame him personally. He has the chance to become the next infamous political appointee to get compared to Michael Brown who was running FEMA during Hurricane Katrina. But perhaps he won’t mind being vilified since he is handing the cable companies a billion dollar opportunity to charge more to Internet companies.

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