May 16 2014, 4:03pm CDT | by Forbes
null Building a broadband infrastructure capable of meeting consumer demands costs money. In the absence of a way for broadband providers to charge some sort of fees or tolls to certain companies, the alternative is that the costs are passed on to everyone. Is it fair that someone who doesn’t even subscribe to or use Netflix should pay more for broadband in order to support it?
This was essentially the argument posed to me earlier this week. Before the net neutrality issue raged out of control in the wake of Thursday’s FCC vote, I had asked a table of media peers in the press room at Microsoft TechEd 2014 what their thoughts were on the topic. Peter Bright—a fellow Houstonian and writer for Ars Technica—expressed concerns that prohibiting broadband providers from cutting deals with services like Netflix to fund the infrastructure and network improvements necessary to deliver adequate service for their content would result in higher prices for everyone whether they use those services or not.
Utopian net neutrality
My naïve, idealistic view on net neutrality is that I am already paying my broadband provider for that data pipeline from my home to the Internet. My provider offers a few different tiers—or speeds—of Internet service, so I choose the one that makes sense for my household and that’s the end of it. It is none of the broadband provider’s business how I choose to use the pipeline, or which sites or services I stream content from over the pipeline, and the broadband provider shouldn’t be allowed to extort additional money from those sites or services for the privilege of delivering that content to me.
In my opinion, that is the sum total of the role of the broadband provider—to build and maintain the pipeline. I don’t think Comcast should give priority access to NBC content just because it owns the network, and I don’t think broadband providers should be allowed to throttle or limit any specific types of content, or content from specific providers.
Is net neutrality fair?
The reality is a bit more complex.
As Bright pointed out to me, it isn’t just a question of whether or not my Netflix movie gets streamed to my PC at an acceptable rate to watch a movie without stuttering and buffering, and it isn’t purely a matter of “extortion” for a broadband provider to charge a company like Netflix some sort of additional fee.
The broadband provider has committed to providing a specified level of service to its customers, and to deliver broadband content within a certain range of speeds. A service like Netflix that streams video content consumes an inordinate amount of network bandwidth—much more than downloading email, or surfing the Web—which can result in degraded services for all customers whether they use Netflix or not.
It’s also not an issue that necessarily impacts the whole network. Netflix customers are scattered around the world, but the Netflix servers only connect in to the Internet in a few select locations. Where the Netflix content enters the Internet, those nodes can easily become saturated, which means the broadband providers have to add more nodes and expand the network to accommodate the load from Netflix—even though the demand is an issue unique to Netflix more or less.
If a broadband provider like Comcast can’t negotiate a deal with a service like Netflix and collect additional fees to fund the necessary network infrastructure, it has to bear the cost of upgrading the network itself. That cost would then be passed on to all Comcast customers regardless of whether they actually subscribe to Netflix or not.
From that perspective, the push for net neutrality doesn’t seem to make much sense. We’re not talking about throttling rival services, or reducing broadband speeds for customers—just enabling the broadband provider to share the burden for network upgrades with the service that benefits and profits from those upgrades.
That seems reasonable.
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It’s pretty simple—the FCC needs to pull the Title II ripcord, and just declare broadband a utility, and assert its legal authority to manage it as such.
Like I said above, the job of the broadband provider is to build and maintain a pipeline. That is all. Just like the pipes that deliver water to my home, or the wires that bring electricity to my house. The water and electric companies don’t have any say in how I use the water or electricity.
If I use an inordinate amount of water to fill an above ground pool, the water company doesn’t get to go back to the pool manufacturer and extort additional fees. If I set my air conditioning at 70 and draw more electricity than an average customer, the electric company can’t go demand additional money from the manufacturer of the air conditioning unit. I pay for the water or electricity (or broadband) that I use, and any expansion or improvement of the underlying infrastructure is the responsibility of the utility.
Does that mean costs will be passed on to customers who don’t benefit directly from infrastructure enhancements? Absolutely. It’s just the way some things are.
My property taxes fund the public school system even though my children are home schooled and don’t benefit from a penny of that money. When the water or electric companies have to expand or replace portions of the infrastructure, those costs are typically passed on to all customers even though it has no bearing on their own water or electricity service. Our tax dollars are used to build and repair highways you will probably never drive on. It’s OK.
As mentioned above, it is a more complex issue than it seems at face value. Certain services—namely Netflix—are raking in a ton of money by putting an inordinate strain on broadband networks. Those services have a vested interest in ensuring the broadband infrastructure can handle that demand, but ultimately the role of building and maintaining that network infrastructure is the sole responsibility of the broadband provider.
It’s time for the FCC to stop pandering to lobbyists or political pressure, and just play the Title II card already.
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