Pint of View: Neutering Neutrality: Let's Put the Brakes on a Separate, but Unequal, Future for Bandwidth Providers

Article excerpt

IF YOU'VE BEEN paying attention to business and technology news for the past several years, you may have heard about something called net (or network) neutrality. It's a topic mentioned in passing, but rarely works up much steam. I have sometimes dismissed it privately, figuring that, like most situations involving a government body, nothing would shake the status quo. I was wrong. Now, net neutrality, the FCC policy that made the Internet a level playing field for start-ups to compete against established businesses, is in danger of being overturned.

Here's how it works. Under the FCC Broadband Policy Statement of 2005, bandwidth providers are considered a "common carrier," and required to treat all data equally. They can't discriminate on the basis of who is using the pipe, what they're moving through it, what format it's in, or what equipment they're using. No filtering of content, no artificial slowing down of service, no requiring specific software or hardware. The rules were clarified in 2010 to be closer to the ones followed by phone carriers, if that helps to clarify the situation for you--it certainly helps me.

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This started to change this year, when Verizon successfully sued the FCC to establish that providers were not common carriers, so the FCC had no authority to enforce net neutrality. This was followed immediately by AT &T patenting ways to get around what weakened authority the FCC still had. In essence, Big Broadband said "You're not the boss of me" and stole the FCC's soccer ball to prove it.

Now, the FCC (chaired by a former broadband-provider lobbyist) plans to draft new rules allowing providers to build special, faster service lanes for companies willing and able to pay for them. Services such as Netflix, Amazon, or Facebook can pay a premium to ensure they have the fastest connections. Established brands can create a huge barrier to entry for competitors. Since 96 percent of the U.S. population has access to two or fewer bandwidth providers, that means new businesses in most regions won't be able to shop around for a better deal for the best speeds.

So it looks like bandwidth providers, the government, and Web companies are having a Three Stooges slap-fight, and bandwidth gets to be Moe. …

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