When broadband Internet connections were first getting rolling, cable technology was one of the easiest ways to provide them. And since cable companies were essentially monopolies, the idea of open access — allowing competing firms to reach customers over the same cable lines — had a certain appeal.
That appeal has withered away with time, technological changes and a new Supreme Court decision that says cable companies don't have to allow competitors to use their high-speed Internet lines. Many expect the court's decision to spur the Federal Communications Commission to deregulate phone companies who are also required to share their lines for Internet connections.
Claims that the Supreme Court's ruling and the fallout will somehow work to limit consumer choices on the World Wide Web are way off-base. And I should know. I live on a farm in the Sierra Nevada, well outside of the nearest small town of 7,800 people and more than 120 miles outside of Los Angeles.
My property is not served by a cable company or by DSL broadband over the phone lines. Yet I have three companies competing to provide me with broadband Internet access — two satellite companies and a wireless company. My father lives even farther from town and yet has five options for broadband access.
In a world where rural mountain valleys two hours outside of L.A. have five options for high-speed Internet access, the idea that we have to artificially create competition though regulations and policies like open access is absurd.
We may not have the extent of broadband access in the U.S. that we want, but open-access policies are partly to blame for that. The regulations actually created a huge disincentive for companies to invest in more broadband infrastructure and slowed down its expansion.
When any product is as competitively provided as broadband access now is, the need to regulate market access is dead and gone. But of course those who don't like, or trust, competition and our free-market system are unhappy.
Hence, even as the idea of open access is dying, the battle is shifting to a new front and a new buzz term — network neutrality — meaning rules against broadband firms influencing the way content flows to you.
In the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling, some consumer groups fear we'll see fewer broadband providers, higher fees, and that cable companies will rig the system so that Internet sites they own load fast and ones they don't own load slowly or are even blocked.
Consumers wouldn't stand for that. When you have a choice among several service providers, why would you choose or stay with one that is deliberately hindering your Internet use?
"Network neutrality" is just the latest desperate attempt to cling to a regime of regulations based on the way our technology was more than 20 years ago and regulatory theories at least 40 years past their prime.
Los Angeles is likely to be the test ground for network neutrality as the city negotiates its franchise-renewal deal with the cable companies. For the last few years, the city has chosen to extend a contract that brings in $20 million in franchise fees each year from the cable companies. The city controller wants the 18-year-old pacts renegotiated. Consumer groups and others are pressuring city leaders to make network neutrality rules a requirement of any new agreement.
But consumers don't need protection from this phantom threat. Consumers can cast the ultimate vote with their pocketbooks by switching companies.
Broadband Internet access is a very competitive market and no consumer is held captive. We don't need network neutrality. Instead of producing benefits, these policies are much more likely to hinder innovation and slow down the expansion of high-speed Internet access.
Adrian Moore is Vice President of Reason Foundation.