Nothing But Net?

Is net neutrality a right or a privilege?

I don't know. I do know, however, that it's likely gone, at least for now, after the Trump administration's FCC chairman Ajit Pai successfully shepherded the repeal of neutrality rules governed by that body late last year. (It's headed to the courts already: legal scholars stay tuned.)

The notion that unlimited bandwidth 24/7 is an entitlement to anyone who rents a broadband connection to the Internet — up to the capacity of the "pipe" in question — is a thorny one. On the one hand, we're accustomed to landline telephone service that is "always on," and that provides us with unlimited national calling to any number, wherever, for as long as we choose to talk, for a fixed monthly fee.

But it was not always thus: Long-distance calling, that is, beyond the local calling area, which generally was the metropolitan area or county in which the originating handset was found, was for nearly a century a premium service. You paid extra for it, by the minute and by the mile, and nobody complained because nobody had ever conceived of a different system. The breakup of the telephone system, first into the "baby Bells" and then into the competitive patchwork of MCI, Sprint, et al changed the competitive landscape, and "unlimited long-distance" service became a necessary feature for any service that wished to attract customers.

Fast-forward forty years, and something different has evolved with mobile-phone service. We buy data delivery by the gigabyte, monthly, and whether a 2GB, 10GB, or unlimited-data plan is your selection, you pay for it by the packet (or billions of packets) as you go — and nobody controls the content, cost, or speed of those packets. In the fiercely competitive cellphone-service marketplace, gigabytes-per-monthly dollar has become a key attraction, and many if not most consumers make their buying decision based at least partially, and often largely, on this metric.

And again, nobody complains, mostly. Verizon may be the second-most hated corporation in America, but it's not because it makes us pay-as-we-go for data. And if you hate the big "V" passionately enough, you're free to migrate to Cricket, MetroPCS, Virgin Mobile, or any of a dozen others in search of a better deal.

Not so the case for captives — err, customers — of America's number-one most-reviled company: Comcast. (Here, regionally, "Comcast" stands in for itself, Cox, and Charter, who collectively provide well more than half of the TV service in the nation — absent the DBS providers DirecTV and Dish, which are not directly comparable.) For the most part, cable subscribers who want a better deal can go pound sand (hence the cord-cutting revolution that's fast sapping cable subscription rolls across the country), thanks to the de facto monopolies the big cable companies enjoy in a majority of the nation. What little competition exists is mostly executed on the basis of channel-package pricing acrobatics: with one you get ESPN, with another TBS, and with a third Disney, but if you want all three you're looking at the top-tier package, and the pricing is as close to price-fixed as makes no nevermind.

Net-neutrality regulation, which by the way is the law of the land in nations as disparate as Chile, Canada, and Slovenia as well as, effectively, in all of the European Union nations, impedes this sort of manipulation from entering the broadband market: you pay for a pipe of a certain megabits-per-second capacity, and what you suck down it is your business. (Mostly porn and cat videos, as it turns out, but that's another story.) Non-neutrality changes the rules, by permitting the Internet service provider to throttle the size of the pipe depending on the content streaming through it. So it's easy to see that where the ISP owns a piece of the content, as is increasingly the case, their interests are served by controlling the speed. One provider might deliver YouTube fast but Vimeo not so much; another could permit Netflix to flow freely, while making Hulu much less satisfying by effectively reducing speed and resolution.

Of course, it's a complex debate: much more so than I've laid out here. For just one example, some inner-city advocates support repeal on the argument that neutrality tends to stifle broadband build-out in underserved neighborhoods, while competitive-market cheerleaders contend that neutrality impedes competition among providers. (Which would be a much better argument if there was much competition amongst providers in the first place.)

I'm still not sure that all-the-bandwidth-you-can-pay-for is necessarily an American birthright, but I am quite certain that a system that encourages the Internet to devolve into a cable-TV-like morass of "channels," each with its hidden profit agenda, is not something I want to see.

Jonasandezekiel's picture

Another one sided article on net neutrality. Spending one paragraph on the opposing view shows off your bias. If you were a little more balanced Daniel, I would respect your point of view more. Are your afraid people might change their minds?

Billy's picture

The big problem here is control of our political and economic systems via information to control our elections. People, the last Presidential election wasn't just the Russians messing around, it was computerized algorithms aimed at individual voters in select states by billionaire funded corporations via social media. Wanna bet where billionaire owners and corporations are going to give more bandwidth too? Wanna speculate what political ideas get saturated with signal and which ones don't? Just look at talk radio, look who controls those stations, do you see fair and balanced info there? Want your net like that? Guys, this isn't about Netflix vs. Charter giving you game of Thrones, it is much bigger then that, though they want you to believe that is all its about. The net has become indispensable for us, not just for work and learning, it is the most important form of communication and shared ideas, world wide. I love streaming TV and radio, but much more important is the ability to view all sorts of angles and opinions on important national and international events.. Rich powerful people already control most of this world, and they want to solidify that which they don't, the net. Reread 1984, Orwell was a genius before his time.

Jonasandezekiel's picture

Talk radio is your big fear?? Your bias is showing, sir. And you're not afraid when Google or Facebook steers search results to to satisfy their blatant political bias??? Your big fear is talk radio? Not the major networks, or silicon valley?? You sir are hopelessly slanted.

Billy's picture

Google, Facebook? Of course I do not trust them, they are huge mega corporations mostly interested in the bottom line. Major news outlets? No, same thing. My talk radio comment described a mostly one sided narrative dictated by ownerships wishes, not neutrality. The airwaves (and now hopefully the net) such be held as a public trust for the public good, not just for the whims of the rich and powerful. If net neutrality was merely about greed and profits I would just shrug my shoulders and forget about it, but it is not, it is about control..and done so through quiet means that the unwashed masses will never understand. Mr. Jonas, have you bathed today?