Life is a freeway: An independent operator’s argument for net neutrality

appeared in MultiChannel News: Voices, November 1, 2006

Net Neutrality is a topic that has crossed my desk several times this year.  Whatever the outcome of this debate,  it has the potential to be as defining an event for our culture,  as the advent of the ‘net was ten years ago.

Many of my counterparts at independent cable companies and large MSO’s will have a variety of opinions on the matter of controlling IP traffic on their networks.  Opponents of net neutrality (that folks who believe that the operators of an IP network should have the right to prioritize traffic) will argue that as the entity that has invested in the network they should have the right to a larger share of profits from commercial IP traffic and to protect the MSO’s content aggregation monopoly with individual customers.   On the other hand, proponents of net neutrality believe that all data packets should be created equal across the Internet.

At first glance it may appear easy to choose sides as an operator. MSO’s do not want to give others a free ride on their networks.  However the value of high-speed internet service is based on the existence of an open and free network and a compromise of such a design might in fact compromise the value and integrity of the current world-wide interconnection of data networks we know as The Internet.

The Internet was founded on the principle of public service and education.  It is only until more recently that its commercial potential has been realized.  This potential, however, is predicated on the fact that it is an open and free method of communication.   If an ISP chooses to control the flow of information,  it in fact could be faced with tremendous public backlash and be branded by consumers as a network with the equivalent of a radar speed trap – a virtual turnpike to be avoided for a faster freeway route.

Should other ISP’s choose to choke competitive products on their national networks it could be an opportunity for cable operators to capitalize on the market value of providing a true open information freeway.

Don’t misunderstand my position.  I accept that an MSO should have the right to segment the cable IP data network for its services.  That is VoIP lifeline telephony should not be compromised by file-sharing and internet downloads.  However ISP’s and MSO’s who choose to oppose net neutrality should consider not only the negative PR but also the long-term effects of the value of the Internet as a product, if they begin to selectively control throughput for select content providers.

Limiting smaller content providers’ ability to reach a consumer via a particular ISP, in fact, could stifle the very explosive growth of the Internet which has made HSI service so ubiquitous and profitable.   Perhaps the best solution is defining a more flexible throughput speed tier structure.  As ‘net growth continues, the need for speed is bringing   down wholesale prices, making upgrades more affordable than ever. Considering that HSI as a product is cheap to offer as compared to TV, investments should be in the infrastructure to provide the best uninhibited connections.

Cable operators of all sizes should seize this as an opportunity to provide premium speeds to those consumers who are willing to pay extra.  Going forward premium speed offerings without content restrictions can be made with excellent profit margins and even better PR.

The real value of the Internet to the consumer is the raging changes that happen in the immediate world of instantaneous communication.  Remember, YouTube and MySpace weren’t created by their current corporate owners, they were acquired.  Would they have existed at all without net neutrality?

Cable can…force a few “preferred vendors” to pay for access to your customers and generate the uncreative and un-stimulated toll-road model that doomed AOL’s “Main Menu” of preferred services five years ago.  Or provide a lightning fast freeway and become the consumers’ choice for a high-speed connection.