Network neutrality debate clouded by politics, emotion

The battle over network neutrality (NN) in the U.S. will determine to a large extent the future of the Internet, but will the outcome deliver the best result for most users? NN supporters would like regulation to prevent network service providers from taking discriminatory actions, such as degrading the quality of competing services, blocking access to certain Web sites or introducing new pricing options. NN opponents do not see the need for regulation, since they claim that competition will eliminate potential abuses. They see NN as a return to the days of regulatory bureaucracy associated with the old public switched telephone network.While the issue has been around for a few years, the debates have yet to shed the emotional and ideological arguments that cloud rational debate. At one extreme, some pro-NN groups suggest that any changes to the way the Internet currently operates would be a threat to democracy (i.e., the freedom for each of us to use the Internet the way we want). At the other extreme, there is the view that NN would challenge the property rights of the network service providers and thus question the central organizing principle of capitalist economies (i.e., service providers must be free to leverage their investments the way they want). At the risk of destroying both our democracy and our capitalist economy, I suggest that both of these views contain more than a little exaggeration.

The main protagonists are the major Internet content providers (ICPs) and the major Internet Service Providers (ISPs); the former supporting NN and the latter opposing it. ISPs (telcos and cablecos) want to introduce new pricing options that would increase their ability to fund future network investment. ICPs, being heavy-duty users, fear that their costs would likely increase. They also fear that ISPs could arrange discriminatory deals that could put some of them at a disadvantage. ISPs respond that competition would minimize such activity. ICPs claim that, even with competition, there would be no control over ISPs giving priority treatment to their own services such as IP telephony and IP television. And so the debates continue, with plenty of fear mongering.

real issue is quality of service

From the user’s perspective, the debates need more focus on end-to-end quality of service (QoS). It presently is not a major factor, due to the complexity of the issue and, more importantly, to a lack of incentive. The current Internet-pricing model does not motivate ISPs to invest in network infrastructure services; rather, it motivates them to look at providing their own content and applications in order to generate more revenue.

The ICPs do not (yet) require the higher QoS required by real-time services, and thus are happy with the status quo. But that also plays into the hands of the ISPs. Unless we motivate the ISPs to provide higher end-to-end QoS, who is most likely to be the main source of IP television programs, for example? Well, none other than the ISPs. The paradox is that NN (as we currently understand it) would perpetuate the cableco model for the distribution of services that require low latency, which severely limits the usefulness of the Internet. How could a remote video or voice service provider compete with a local ISP if there continues to be no end-to-end QOS guarantees?

We therefore need new pricing options that motivate ISPs to invest in the network and particularly in improved end-to-end QOS. This requires that users demonstrate a willingness to pay more for higher service levels, and not just for bigger access pipes. It also requires that regulators take a less static view of the Internet, and look beyond today’s model, before deciding on any action.

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