Neutral Networks Are the Devil’s Allies

Broadband consumers can vote with their pocketbooks

“Today the Court struck a blow against freedom online,” claims Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “The Internet they have bestowed promotes the interest of a few big media companies against the best interests of the public…”

Sound bad? Then consider this dire prediction From Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media: “The Supreme Court’s decision…to permit cable companies to discriminate in providing Internet access is a potentially devastating blow to the wide diversity of viewpoints and voices upon with our democracy and culture depend.”

What’s got these good citizens in a pickle? The Supreme Court’s recent decision in the the case National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., et al. v. Brand X Internet Services, which ruled that cable companies do not have to lease their networks to rivals who have no other means of competing. In the wake of the Brand X ruling, consumer advocates fear that we’ll all be stuck with broadband monopolies. Many expect the Court’s decision will spur the Federal Communications Commission to deregulate phone companies, who are required to share their lines for Internet connections.

Nobody is more dismayed than Brand X owner Jim Pickrell, who says, “It’s an end to competition in broadband and telephone.”

But before you throw your cable modem through your TV screen, consider what’s happening in the actual consumer broadband market: Consumers now enjoy an expanding array of choices, and all indications are that those choices will grow rapidly.

I should know: I live on a farm in the Sierra Nevada mountains, well outside of the nearest small town of 7,800 people and over 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 further 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 create artificial competition though regulatory policies like open access is absurd. Time and technological changes have passed by the situation that once made open access seem like an attractive option.

In fact, to the extent that we don’t have as much broadband access in the U.S. as we want, open access policies are partly to blame. Open access regulations created a huge disincentive for companies to invest in more broadband infrastructure and slowed down the expansion of the technology.

That hasn’t made regulation zealots trust the market any better. 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. This refers to rules and regulations preventing broadband firms from influencing the way content flows to you. Without such rules, some consumer groups fear we’ll see fewer broadband providers, higher fees, and cable companies rigging the system so that Internet sites that they own load fast and ones they don’t own are slowed down, or even blocked.

Advocates of enforced neutrality ignore one important fact: Consumers wouldn’t stand for that. When you have a choice of several service providers, why would you choose-or stay with-one that is deliberately hindering your Internet use? “Network neutrality” is the just the latest attempt to fix technology from 20 years ago with regulatory theories from 40 years ago.

Los Angeles may be the test ground for network neutrality as the city negotiates its franchise-renewal deal with the cable companies. In 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 enforced “network neutrality” policies that are much more likely to hinder innovation and slow down the expansion of high-speed Internet access than provide any added benefit to consumers.