By W. Russell Neuman
‘Net neutrality,’ whatever that might mean, sure sounds like a reasonable idea. It’s got to be better than whatever the alternative could be. Let’s see: Net Narrow-Mindedness? Verizon Villainy? Time Warner Turpitude?
You’ve seen headlines with the phrase ‘net neutrality.’ Perhaps you have heard further that net neutrality is an Obama-era regulatory provision protecting an open internet, which has now been reversed by the Trump administration. That sounds familiar, and seems like it is not a good sign.
If you track such issues closely, you may have learned that the Trump-appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai—who has championed this ‘regulatory roll-back’—used to be a lobbyist for Verizon, one of the principal beneficiaries of the move. Oh my. What is it that they say about living in interesting times?
I used to work in the White House as a media policy analyst, so I have been following this issue since Tim Wu at Columbia University coined the term ‘network neutrality’ in a technical article in 2002. Here’s what makes it an unusual and intriguing policy debate. Rather than the usual policy pit fight that arrays some industry cabal—such as big pharma or strip mining—against a few tiny and poorly funded public interest groups, this one is different. It is a battle between two groups of gigantic industry titans.
On one side, those opposing net neutrality are the network service providers—telephone and cable companies like Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum), Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon. On the other side, those supporting net neutrality are the emerging corporate giants who make their profits selling stuff on the net—Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and Google. ‘Net Neutrality’ posits that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally (neutrally) and that cable and telephone companies can’t slow down online services they don’t like, or that they compete with, or that they want to squeeze for higher access fees. That sounds like such a reasonable idea—How could anybody want to repeal that?
Well, it is a regulatory policy and that sounds like bureaucratic overreach to Republican ears. The network providers smile and promise they’ll always be neutral but may have to “shape” network traffic to prevent digital traffic jams. Trust us, they say, not to manipulate the net in search of higher profits.
How does all of this impact the West Village? Well, it turns out that we are in better shape than most of the country, which has only one true broadband service provider. The only way to fight back against an internet company which is slowing down or possibly blocking certain websites is to threaten to move, or actually move, to another provider. Meaningful competition is the answer.
Expect to see ads promising ‘net neutral service.’ The West Village has more competing service providers than most of the country. Most WestView readers probably have broadband service from Spectrum, their cable television provider. 60.8% of the 10014 zip code utilizes the Verizon Fios (fiber-optic) network as an alternative. (Check out all alternatives at broadbandnow.com).
In the long run, the even better news is that fifth generation cellular service (aka 5G—gotta have an acronym) due in 2020 will provide wireless internet service competition to the current cable and fiber providers. With a half-dozen companies competing, your advanced Wi-Fi router will be able to electronically negotiate in real time to make sure you get fast service and no blocking. Will that really happen? Yes, but only if we can prevent Comcast from buying up all the cellular carriers and cable companies and creating one big monopoly and no real competition.
So, our future is in the hands of the Trump Justice Department’s Anti-Trust Division. Hmmm. That may be a problem.
Russell Neuman is a Professor of Media Technology at New York University. While employed in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Neuman worked in the areas of information technology, broadband policy, and technologies for border security.