Network neutrality and the future of communities

If you are not familiar with the phrase "network neutrality," it is time to start learning more about it, as the issue is moving front and center in the debate about the future of the Internet.

The current Internet is "network neutral," meaning that there is a gentleman's agreement among all network managers that they will allow anyone else's data to cross their network. If you send an email to someone in California, it might traverse several privately owned networks along the way. Network neutrality is what makes the Internet work.

But as I've been writing for some time, the Internet was never designed for video, and the crushing data load of video (hundreds or thousands of times more data than emails and Web pages) is forcing network managers to start considering alternatives to network neutrality.

It is the low end broadband providers (telcos and cable companies) that are suffering. As their customers now routinely download or stream audio and video from sources outside their own network, they have to carry all that traffic, raising their costs and affecting network performance (everything gets slower).

This BBC commentary is a good introduction to some of the issues (I don't agree with everything the author recommends), and here is a critical and important quote from the article:

The phone and cable companies want to be free to charge for new services and make more money, and they argue that it's not up to the government what they do with their networks.

I have to side with the broadband providers in this case. I don't agree with the author that the solution is to re-regulate telecom and turn these companies into de facto arms of the government. We've already tried that, and as the technology changed, it was less and less efficient.

The author talks about the undesirability of having two roads in every town--a well maintained private road (owned by the telcos and cable companies) and a "dirt road" for public use. But in trying to convince us of the correctness of his position, he fails to mention an alternative--that communities build and maintain roads that can be used by everyone, including the cable and telephone companies.

This model already works really well--with vehicular roads, on which an amazing variety of public and private vehicles share that road and its costs and everyone benefits from a single, publicly maintained community road system.

The author's alternative is to have the Federal government deciding for local communities what kind of broadband they need. That's not likely to work well, any more than it is to let the cable or telephone company decide what kind of broadband we need (where we are right now).

Think I'm wrong about relying of the Feds? Ten years after the 1996 Telecom Deregulation Act, the Federal government is still stubbornly insisting that "broadband" is 200 kilobits per second. That's about four times faster than dial up, about two to four times slower than what most of us have via cable and DSL, and about 500 times slower than what the rest of the world thinks is an acceptable broadband speed (100 megabits per second).

So communities have three choices:

  • You can let the Federal government decide what is best for your community. And we already have plenty of information about how that is likely to work out.
  • You can let a private company with headquarters many states away decide what is best for you community. And we have plenty of information about how that is working out.
  • The community can set its own direction for the future, make its own investments, and make decisions locally about what is best for the community.

Which fork in the road is the right one for the economic future of your community?

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