Should Your Gas Company Sell You a BBQ Grill? Talking About Net Neutrality

by Ari Rabban

net_neutralityNet neutrality. If you work for a company that does business online, you’ve likely heard this term. The concept and goals of net neutrality seem simple and fair: Don’t let the big kids bully the little kids or stop them from playing on the playground. The concern is that when net neutrality is jeopardized, everyone using the Internet can be affected, either by reduced services, higher prices or both.

It seems every few months there is some new ruling regarding net neutrality, and it can all become a little ho-hum. But the FCC’s recent announcement on net neutrality astounded many.

In a nutshell, the debate is whether the large commercial broadband providers like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others have to allow free and equal rights to any content provider (think Netflix or YouTube) to deliver their media to the consumer. The big players contend that popular web-based services are clogging the network that they paid billions to develop. This also applies to web-based businesses and most regular content providers, not just those streaming video content.  Netflix and YouTube don’t feel they can offer the service level they need because the network is clogged and if, as the new ruling suggests, content providers will be allowed to pay broadband providers to get faster access, then small content and service providers will suffer.

From all the pundits who voiced opinions, and all the protests and write-ups on the topic, one caught my attention—a New York Times op-ed piece called The Wire Next Time by technology law expert Susan Crawford. Crawford’s article suggests broadband should be delivered to homes and businesses using municipal-level fiber networks. She states that MUNI networks can be a long-term solution to dealing with the costs and political wrangling that make net neutrality difficult. Crawford also offers real-life examples of towns where municipal fiber networks operate successfully. Sadly, her solution seems impossible in most places because of the stronghold and lobbying power of the big broadband players.

Frankly, I believe that we need to go one step further and see broadband simply as a utility. Like electricity, gas and water, broadband should be delivered to consumers by providers who are responsible solely for delivering broadband.

If you think about it, we don’t see electricity companies trying to sell us washing machines, and if they did, I doubt you’d see them blocking the sale of other brands. Likewise, if gas companies started selling BBQ grills, I can’t imagine them lobbying to prevent the sale of Broil King or Weber grills.

So whether fiber or wireless (the latter may prove to be the way of the future), Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and the other big kids on the playground should not be allowed to control the network and sell the content. I believe that we have today is bad—an infrastructure and climate that benefits the big kids and hurt startups, innovation and the consumer.

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