The newspapers and airwaves are currently filled with talk of "network neutrality." Technically, it is about traffic – email, web queries, voice and video – and its possible prioritization on the Internet. Should Internet service providers and governments treat all data equally, or can they give preference to some content, sites, applications, users or devices based on defined criteria?
If you believe the pundits, network neutrality is about truth, justice and the unfettered right to watch YouTube videos. In reality, the network neutrality debate is a power and economic struggle between Internet service providers (i.e., mostly cable systems, telephone companies and wireless carriers) and those who provide content and services (e.g., movie and video services, search engines, social networks, web site hosts, email service providers and Internet businesses). Mediated by the U.S. government, the outcome of this battle has profound implications for all of us who consume content and use the Internet for work, recreation and social interaction. It will determine how much we pay for bandwidth, what services are available and how good they are.
To understand the net neutrality power struggle, it's instructive to consider an analogy with roads and traffic. Imagine a world where almost all roads were built, owned and operated by companies, rather than state and local governments. To recoup their construction costs and a profit, the companies charge tolls on all cars and trucks using the roads. To further complicate things, many of those road companies also operate their own fleets of cars and trucks, competing with their customers to deliver some goods and services.
The question is whether the road owners and operators can give priority to certain cars or trucks – their own or those of others -- based on how much the owners are willing to pay, the size of the fleets, and where the traffic goes. Superficially, the answer would seem to be obvious – yes, they should – until you realize that the goods and services on which individuals, businesses and governments all depend are being delivered by those cars and trucks. This conundrum is the balance of private enterprise and the public good.
One need look no further than the history of water companies, electric utilities, radio and television, and telephone companies to see the creative tension between regulation for the common good and stimulating free enterprise and supporting innovation. Many of us remember when the old AT&T (Ma Bell) was a regulated monopoly, with telephone rates and services subject to state and federal approval. The 1982 breakup of AT&T into a long distance company and a set of regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs) led to an explosion of wired and wireless services, competition from Sprint and MCI, and much lower long distance rates.
However, those old telephone regulations also supported the public good, ensuring that inexpensive telephone service was available everywhere, whether one lived in an isolated, rural area or a large city. Why? Because the regulations included cross-subsidies to support rural service. For all the excitement about high-speed Internet access, it is not universally available because the revenue in rural areas does not cover the costs of service. (Think about the toll road analogy again. Private sector toll roads are only economically attractive where there is high traffic.)
This brings us back to the network neutrality debate. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing to treat the Internet, both wired and wireless, as a telecommunications service, using the same legal authority it uses to regulate other telecommunications services – radio, television, and telephony. Under the proposed rules, Internet broadband would be treated as a "common carrier," meaning the network must be open for all without discrimination. In addition, the FCC has proposed to refrain (forbear) from enforcing those regulatory provisions not relevant to modern broadband services. Nor would the proposal regulate rates or mandate service.
The political and economic battle is raging over how much regulation would be applied and how those regulations would affect the players. Some argue that any regulation will stifle innovation and private sector investment, and bring us a step closer to big brother rate regulation and tariffs – in the spirit of Ma Bell oversight.
I think that is highly unlikely, as the Internet is filled with competing services and companies. Rather, the network neutrality debate is about balancing innovation, private enterprise and the public good, while ensuring fairness and equal access. Simply put, it is a debate about appropriate checks and balances for a critical service. It should not be a political issue.
Internet access was once a luxury, but no longer. In a 21st century knowledge economy, high-speed Internet services are the roads, waterways and rail lines of trade and commerce. They are the successors to telegraphy and telephony, coupling individuals and families across time and space. They are society's essential services, especially in a state like Iowa, where we are deeply dependent on communication for our future.
We need policies that enable universal access, while also ensuring Internet service providers have the flexibility and freedom to innovate and the economic returns to make that attractive. We also need mechanisms and technologies that support both top down and bottom up network deployment, allowing new market entrants and existing companies to expand coverage.
Remember, network neutrality is not just about streaming high definition movies to your television or mobile device, or buying goods and services via an e-commerce site. It's also about broadband access for education, electronic consultation with a medical specialist to avoid a repeat visit to the hospital during a winter storm, small businesses marketing products globally, and precision agriculture that lets Iowa farmers maximize crop yields. In short, network neutrality is complicated, but it matters to all of us.