Thursday, January 6, 2011
New, Old and Forgotten Frames in the Network Neutrality Debate
One key reason for confusion about Network Neutrality lies in the many different and inconsistent frames used to shape the debate. The Tea Party has entered the fray by characterizing the matter primarily in terms of freedom. Republicans decry the “job killing” impact of the FCC’s rules. Network Neutrality advocates appear ambivalent whether the FCC has capitulated to special interests, or shaped a pragmatic compromise.
Older frames typically use hyperbole to justify government intervention or forbearance. Network Neutrality advocates frame the matter as impacting the Internet’s openness and its ability to incubate new ventures such as Google, Netflix, Amazon and EBay. Opponents reject the need for government safeguards based on the view that there is no problem requiring a solution.
Everyone seems to have ignored a more basic question whether or not the Internet access market currently operates competitively. If the market is sufficiently competitive one can vote with their dollars and change carriers if and when the carrier operates in ways subscribers do not like. Of course there are transaction costs in making such a move, and in the wireless market carriers offer subsidized handsets to lock in subscribers for two years. As well the matter of identifying the cause of network congestion, sluggish service or discriminatory practices presents a forensic problem. In light of the interconnected and integrated nature of the Internet, where content and conduit converge, an end user cannot readily determine if degradation in service—however defined—is caused by the content or application provider, a long haul carrier, or the ISP providing first and last mile access to the Internet cloud.
Still if the Internet access marketplace operates competitively, then consumers, if so inclined, can reward or punish ISPs based on the real or perceived openness. Even in competitive markets, carriers can agree explicitly or decide unilaterally not to emphasize or market different degrees of openness. But at least the potential exists for an ISP to identify the openness factor and target consumers who consider it a priority. This is not happening in the Internet access marketplace either because openness, transparency and nondiscrimination are non-issues, because all ISPs are fair and neutral, or because consumers do not have the ability to identify and subscriber to an ISP promising fair and neutral service should the existing carrier explicitly or subversively operate in a non-neutral manner.
So competition in the Internet access marketplace matters greatly and somehow this issue constitutes a “huge omission” in the debate according to the fair minded writers at The Economist. See A tangled web, America’s new internet rules are mostly sensible—but the country’s real web problem is far more basic (Dec. 29, 2010); available at: http://www.economist.com/node/17800141. If I had access to a competitive marketplace ISPs would have offer me something better than the one (and only one viable) option I have now: $59.95 plus tax and fees for downloads up to 15Mbps, and uploads up to 3Mbps, or $40.95 plus tax and fees for up to 1.5 Mbps download and uploads up to 384 Kbps.
Just because many consumers have a choice of two broadband distribution platforms (cable and DSL) does not by definition ensure robust competition with affordable rates. The Economist dares to report the issue frame ignored by the FCC and others:
the failure in America to tackle the underlying lack of competition in the provision of internet access. In other rich countries it would not matter if some operators blocked some sites: consumers could switch to a rival provider. That is because the big telecoms firms with wires into people’s homes have to offer access to their networks on a wholesale basis, ensuring vigorous competition between dozens of providers, with lower prices and faster connections than are available in America. Getting America’s phone and cable companies to open up their networks to others would be a lot harder for politicians than prattling on about neutrality; but it would do far more to open up the net.