The last thing I want to do in my blog is to get into political discussions. Many people in the technical communities I walk in would much prefer a discussion of the pros and cons of a SIP trunking service to a debate about democratic, republican, or libertarian talking points. There are times, however, when the intersection of government policy and technology markets demands our attention. In an earlier blog, I cited the 1983 ruling by Judge Greene as a watermark to not only my career but the entire explosion of the internet and telecom services. In that ruling which broke up AT&T, there were provisions that placed restrictions on the new "Baby Bells”—prohibiting discrimination against information providers, and prohibiting these new common carriers from originating content themselves.
This past Tuesday, a federal appeals court made a landmark ruling against the FCC with respect to net neutrality and the overall ability of the government to force internet service providers into specifically defined fairness practices. The court blew up the FCC’s net neutrality-based rules for pricing and delivering internet content. The court basically said that the FCC did not have authority over broadband content providers as they are not common carriers. They upheld the FCCs right to regulate the Internet—but not its authority over an ISP. (Not sure how you have one without the other.) In my simple mind, that means one of two things will happen: either the FCC will back off, or they will seek to regulate ISPs in the way they regulate common carriers. Place your bets.
The concept of net neutrality is not new. It has been around for generations—initially, it focused on access fairness for telecomm, but now it’s centered on the internet services concepts behind charging for content and quality of service. The current debate centers on large Internet providers such as Verizon or Comcast, versus content providers such as Google and Netflix. What was once a grassroots effort to provide fairness for the little guy in the light of large corporate agendas is now a huge debate between huge players with billions of dollars at stake. This ruling will have significant, long-term ramifications on rates and application performance. Make no mistake, it’s still the little guy who will suffer the end result.
Net neutrality makes for an interesting debate. At stake are a host of free market concepts versus the public interest. Has the Internet reached the level of public utility to the point of government regulation? Should an ISP be able to recover the cost of supporting Netflix traffic and better still can the ISP compete with Netflix by having native content? If you separate functions, how can a small content provider compete with Disney if Disney can afford a premium Quality of Service plan from their carrier of choice?
I am fascinated by the depth of the arguments on both sides of the Net Neutrality debate and leave you with one premise that I have long believed: it’s extremely hard for the government to keep up with regulating technology industries such as ours. The pace of our change is too extreme. Even in this latest FCC attempt, they didn’t include wireless providers, as they thought that industry too immature for regulation. Hmmm… aren’t we on iPhone 5?