The Internet IS broken.
Recently, I read a op-ed commentary on the Chicago Tribune’s website entitled “The Internet isn’t broken. Obama doesn’t need to ‘fix’ it.” by Ajit Pai and Joshua Wright. Their argument is that treating the internet like a public utility would reduce competition and result in higher prices for consumers. Nothing could be further from the truth and, frankly, what they talk about is just political rhetoric. As usual, the problem isn’t framed properly and misses the mark on facts and reality. My take is that the government shouldn’t just “treat” the internet like a utility…they should just flat out turn it into one.
The internet itself is reliant on the ability for us to transfer data to and from various sources. Much like the energy you get from power lines, who uses it doesn’t matter. It’s how much you use that matters and, like energy, you as an individual has to pay for what you use. The problem with net neutrality is that the pipes coming into our homes is darn near a monopoly.
Let’s take my area as an example. In most neighborhoods, you only have a choice of either a traditional telecom or a cable company for your broadband services. You’re basically stuck with whomever won the contract to service your area for these services. If it’s a telecom company, it’s usually either AT&T or Verizon (AT&T in my case). If it’s a broadband company, it’s usually either Time Warner or Comcast. I used to use AT&T but after having tons of difficulty upgrading to their higher speed 50mbs service, I switched to Time Warner and now get a pretty steady 100mbs speed. Problem is that I don’t have much choice. I’m basically picking the lesser of two evils because, frankly, even Time Warner has some issues. Either I use one of these companies or I go with a dish, which is NOT an option…not gonna do it!
On average, the cost of the broadband services we pay is so much more than what other countries pay simply because the excessive cost of the infrastructure gets past onto us, the consumers. As such, broadband companies are trying to find ways to become even more profitable by leveraging access to bandwidth, which is bad for both the consumer and companies like Netflix who use a lot of bandwidth. We’re already paying for the bandwidth so…why should we pay more? Doesn’t make sense.
Thing is, simply putting forth rules that limit what ISP’s can and can’t do with bandwidth doesn’t solve the problem. Net neutrality may be an issue but has little to do with how ISP’s sell bandwidth. The real issue has more to do with infrastructure more than anything else.
My take and many others within the tech community is that the internet simply needs to be turned into a utility if we’re ever going to bring down the cost of the infrastructure and improve the speed, reliability, and cost for everyone to be on the internet. Just like energy, instead of having a bunch of lines being thrown around our neighborhoods, only one company would be responsible for deploying and maintaining a standardized infrastructure for our data. From there, all service providers (AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner, Comcast, and more) would compete to offer the best networking services to enhance and manage your online experience. This would open the doors for even smaller, more localized companies.
Remember dial-up services? It wasn’t just AOL, MSN, Earthlink, and all the other big companies. There were a LOT of smaller, local dial-up companies as well. What was in common with these companies is that they all used the same infrastructure: our telephone lines. Why should broadband service be any different? Strangely enough, England has been doing it this way for years. Broadband over there is much cheaper than it is here.
It seems pretty clear that allowing ISP’s to run their own wires and build wireless towers everywhere just isn’t sustainable. How many lines does any one neighborhood really need? It’s expensive, it takes time to improve and expand these networks, and the cost of doing so gets passed down to the consumer, which is exactly what’s happening right now without any intervention from the FCC or Congress. What we need is a way to roll out the infrastructure once and do it in a more standardized manner that, over time, will be much, much more cost efficient to upgrade and maintain as technology improves.
Energy companies are not operated by the government. They run independently but are regulated in order to ensure that infrastructure is maintained and that we always get a fair shake on the energy we buy. Even within a regulated market like this competition still exists, right? So, how would turning ISP’s into utilities be any different? Telephone companies were operating as utilities as well back in the day. What we’re talking about is NOT a government owned and operated internet infrastructure. Instead, just like energy, the infrastructure will always be maintained by a third-party private company.
Upside is that, like dial-up, if the Internet were setup as a utility there would be tons of opportunities for smaller companies to thrive within the market place. Choices would open up like no tomorrow. And not just choices on what internet services you want to use but also media services. Everyone already knows that the traditional cable “packages” that telcoms sell right now are on the out. Streaming media and on-demand services are on the up. If the internet were a utility then these services would open up a lot more and give companies a bigger reason to market them more. Again, more choice and more competition.
I think what we’re seeing is a result of lobbying being turned into political propaganda as a way of keeping the FCC and Congress from making this happen. Big companies like Comcast pretend that they’re in support of Net Neutrality but, trust me, they don’t want to see the internet being treated like a utility. They’re making way, way, way too much money on their existing business model. Doesn’t matter if they support Net Neutrality or they don’t. If the internet becomes a utility then the issue of Net Neutrality becomes moot. Simple as that.
Bottom-line: Manage the infrastructure, treat it as a utility, and I guarantee you that the cost will go down, quality and speed of service will go up, and net neutrality will be maintained and won’t even be an issue.