So, according to wired.com, today was the last day to post comments to the FCC about Net Neutrality. (Note to the FCC: if you really want input from constituents, requiring them to fill out an ugly form with personal information and then providing a confusing interface for uploading or typing comments is not a good way to go about it.) I’m pretty sure that most people who aren’t ISPs, or who aren’t receiving compensation from ISPs, think net neutrality is a good thing, and worth preserving. It’s what makes the Internet the fair playing field that it is, thereby fostering innovation, instead of stagnation.
The FCC wanted to know “how consumers are affected by these [net neutrality] policies, and whether consumer choice of broadband providers is sufficient to ensure that all such policies ultimately benefit consumer.” I wrote a comment that was mostly geared toward the latter question: market regulation isn’t enough. The reasons?
- Consumers don’t typically have more than one broadband provider at a time, and are often locked into contracts or package deals that prevent them from switching easily or giving more business to a different provider based on performance.
- Even if consumers could switch between providers easily, in my experience, there aren’t many options to switch between. In Philadelphia, for example, pretty much all residential broadband access is through Comcast. In rural areas, options are often even slimmer.
- In order for net neutrality to work, all providers have to treat all packets equally. If one ISP decides to violate neutrality, they all have an incentive to do so (namely, to promote the use of their own services instead of third-party services). A market where some ISPs respect neutrality and some don’t is unstable and not likely to be around long enough to “let consumer choice sort it out.”
- Even if consumers could choose between neutral and non-neutral providers, they couldn’t really achieve neutrality of services. Suppose person A is connected to the Internet via neutral ISP X and person B is connected via non-neutral ISP Y, which prioritizes packets originating in its own network and using its own services, and suppose A and B are having a Voice-over-IP conversation. A has chosen to use X because of its neutrality policy, but the non-neutrality of Y means that A’s conversation with B suffers from significant delays. In order to reduce these delays, A has no option except to switch to provider Y, or convince B to stop using provider Y.
Because net neutrality has to be globally coordinated, because consumer choice is severely constrained, and because neutrality is an unstable equilibrium (i.e., all ISPs have an incentive to violate it if they can and if any other does), it requires government regulation to protect it. That’s my message to the FCC.