Network neutrality would prohibit telephone and cable companies from allocating the costs of managing large amounts Internet traffic to the parties directly responsible for that high-traffic volume. Network neutrality proponents don’t deny this. In fact, they embrace it as a virtue. But in this type of environment, companies that supply Web-based services like movie downloads and multiplayer games that consume the large amounts of bandwidth and require real-time, error-free delivery will be economically divorced from bandwidth they consume and the management resources they use. Right now, there is no shortage of bandwidth, thus it remains fairly inexpensive. Some engineers argue that advances in IP technology will always ensure adequate bandwidth. In that case, the network neutrality issue is moot. Others say that it is inevitable that applications will consume the bandwidth available, and that sooner or later, carriers will be required to engineer their networks to manage and optimize high bandwidth services. A network neutrality law would leave carriers with two lesser options: Spread those management costs among all users, raising the cost of broadband service for everyone, or continue to attempt to manage traffic within the current “best effort” framework of IP. Carriers will likely attempt to mix the two, with the result being an expensive yet mediocre Internet experience. Lack of management resources will diminish the performance of the bandwidth-intensive applications. At the same time, these big applications, because of the bandwidth they are consuming, will disrupt more limited applications as they try to move down the pipe. What we’ll end up with is the same result that we’ve seen time and again when government mandated pricing controls interfere with the law of supply-and-demand: a commons problem where too many parties are competing for too few resources. Without the market to regulate supply and demand, the solution becomes simple enoughÃ¢â?¬â??rationing. This can take several forms. Under “hard rationing,” carriers may elect to cap bandwidth to homes, say at 4 or 6 Mb/s, enough to accommodate two simultaneous video streams, with some space capacity leftover. Technology that can deliver much more would be throttled down to regulate individual bandwidth use. But bandwidth caps are doubtful. Since network neutrality is largely a liberal idea, I’m wagering that if it comes to pass, we’ll see the familiar form of soft rationing that liberals loveÃ¢â?¬â??social conditioning through shaming. Remember the energy crisis of the 1970s? Back then, electricity and natural gas rates were capped. Because market forces weren’t allowed to allocate demand in a fair way, excessive use of electricity was deemed bad manners. To set up elaborate holiday display in front of your house was to invite local tut-tuting. Gasoline price controls gave birth to the pejorativeÃ¢â?¬â??gas guzzlerÃ¢â?¬â??which persists to this day. Today, in areas where local governments keep the cost of water artificially low, a green lawn signifies selfish excess. Because network neutrality would inevitably lead to greater network congestion, we can expect a new slate of public service messages urging us to use only “our fair share” of the Internet. The U.S. may end up with the most advanced fiber optic technology running to every home, but use it to stream a few James Bond movies while playing Grand Theft Auto with 10,000 other gamers and you’ll be tarred a broadband “hog.” I expect some sort of stylized cartoon icon, dubbed Auntie Bandwidth or some such, who will regularly pop up on Web sites and pay-per-view menus to wag a finger at us about excessive Internet use. Face it, liberals love doing this sort of thing. The chip-munching, beer-guzzling, channel-surfing male couch potato is already in their sites (because supply and demand in health care is disrupted). Their crusade against violent video games is in full swing. Nothing would give these groups greater pleasure than to tell us how we’re misusing “limited” broadband resources. Rather than deal with the etiquette of whose applications are more worthy than others, I’d just settle for the time-honored approach: everyone pays his way.
Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.