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The Sausage Behind the Net Neutrality Debate December 3, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Software platforms, Strategy.
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The saying goes that you may like to eat sausage, but you don’t want to know how it’s made.  The same goes for the broadband Internet delivered to our homes.  I’ve largely avoided discussions on net neutrality, because I’ve found it difficult to take a position one way or the other.  I don’t think some traffic should be prioritized over other traffic, but I can appreciate the need for the backbone and delivery providers to make a profit.

Reading this conflict between the broadband provider Comcast and streaming video provider Level 3, I think I’m now prepared to take a position.  The pipe is really nothing more than a conduit.  As David Isen called it over a decade ago, the Internet best works as a “stupid network” with intelligence at the endpoints, and that’s pretty much what we have today.  While traffic may be different, the network should treat it all the same.

That makes broadband providers such as Comcast little more than utilities.  They string the lines (well, bury the cables), and ensure that the lines stay available.  They are the ones I call when I can’t ping an external server or website.  Further, current regulation treats them as monopolies, allowing only a single cable company to serve each individual town and city.

One problem seems stem from the business combinations of content and delivery.  With the upcoming acquisition of NBC Universal, Comcast now has a vested interest in promoting its own content.  That can take the form of charging for the delivery of third-party content, instead favoring its own.

I recognize that the Internet has enabled a lifestyle and economy that could only be imagined twenty years ago.  Whereas we were watching VHS tapes from Blockbuster stores in the 1990s, today we are streaming movies to our HDTVs (well, to be honest, I’m not; I still use the DVD mail service, and don’t own an HDTV).  But I would rather not have my broadband provider decide for me that it has the preferred content.  Instead, I want my broadband provider to reliably deliver bits, something that in my case Comcast only has a so-so record of doing.

David Isen has a couple of pointed posts on this topic, here and here.  The net is effectively the airwaves these days, ever since the US Congress decreed that all network broadcasts be digital (arguably, cable and satellite are more obviously the airwaves, but you can make the argument that they are simply a special case of the Internet).

This is clearly an area for Federal regulation, and Comcast and the other broadband providers are clearly public utilities, not growth companies in content.  Let them have a decent regulated profit, but keep them out of the content business.  Really.

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