Democracy & Technology Blog Trying to resuscitate net neutrality

I think its an open secret that Congress is highly unlikely to make significant progress toward comprehensive telecom reform in 2006. That’s probably a good thing. While many people, including many members of Congress, recognize that telecom law badly needs an update, there is an astounding lack of awareness that the basic problem is too much regulation. Most of the proposals so far would create more new regulation than they would eliminate. The supporters of net neutrality sense that a window of opportunity is closing, and they are trying to do something about it.
Douglas Van Houweling, the CEO of Internet2, gave an interview to National Journal’s Technology Daily, (subscription required) in which he claimed: “If you have enough bandwidth in the pipe, you don’t need a quality-of-service model.” That’s true, but he doesn’t mention that the former would be more expensive than the latter by many orders of magnitude (see footnote). Van Houweling, who runs a publicly-funded 10-gigabit-per-second network for universities, thinks innovation in high-bandwidth applications will be stifled if network operators charge content and application providers a premium to ensure the smooth delivery of high-bandwidth applications and services. Okay, so if he is saying that the vendors of content and applications should be given a pass, who will cover the cost? I guess that when it comes to spoils, what’s theirs is theirs and what’s yours is negotiable.
Here’s another interesting argument for net neutrality from John Paczkowski, commenting today on

“By good fortune, not clever innovation, the telecoms found themselves sitting at a choke point in the network, and having fumbled early attempts to cash in, now expect to collect tolls from more successful companies. What we don’t need is a new layer of parasites auctioning off the right to reach us.”

This is getting personal! The Internet, wonderful though it is, is a work in progress. Enormous investment will be needed to augment bandwidth and elimintate things like jitter and delay for innovative new offerings. The best analogy I have heard is FedEx and UPS, who provide premium service for those willing to pay, and the Postal Service, who provide a slower, albeit reliable product for a lot less. It works beautifully and most everyone is happy. If content and application providers are really worried about being stifled, they ought to consider what will happen if investment in the Internet itself is deflected — the high-bandwidth pipes they need just won’t exist.
Footnote: Bandwidth is replacing QoS, as George Gilder and Bret Swanson have been saying for a long time — especially in the core of the network. If you were building a network from scratch you would choose bandwidth. However, where a network already exists and there are technologies like QoS or DSL — which are designed to extend the capabilities and useful life of existing network investment — it is far cheaper to invest in those technologies. If QoS were to be “outlawed,” which some people clearly want but which I can’t imagine happening, the effect in a competitive market would be to force carriers to write off existing investment — needlessly harming investors.

Hance Haney

Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project
Hance Haney served as Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project at the Discovery Institute, in Washington, D.C. Haney spent ten years as an aide to former Senator Bob Packwood (OR), and advised him in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee during the deliberations leading to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He subsequently held various positions with the United States Telecom Association and Qwest Communications. He earned a B.A. in history from Willamette University and a J.D. from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.