Friday, October 22, 2010

Net Neutrality Debate

Our debate in class over network neutrality didn't end up being nearly as heated and confrontational as I had imagined, but the fun we sacrificed was replaced by a useful and insightful discussion. The issues of network neutrality are a mix of economics, politics, and technology. It's hard enough to agree on what network neutrality is, much less to balance the desires of numerous conflicting stakeholders. Although the members of the class had vastly differing opinions, I was surprised that there was an issue that everyone in the class could agree on: transparency. Even the most libertarian among us agreed that ISPs need to be open about their traffic shaping and discrimination practices.

Beyond transparency, there is very little we could agree on. Part of the problem is coming to an agreement about whether there is a healthy level of competition in the last-mile ISP market. Having recently shopped for service multiple in Utah and Salt Lake counties, I have some definite opinions on the matter. In each county, I am aware of only four serious companies: Comcast (cable), Qwest (DSL), Digis (wifi), and Utopia/iProvo (municipal fiber). I'll address each of these individually. Comcast consistently gets some of the worst results in the American Customer Satisfaction Index; granted, there are signs that things are slowly getting better, but that's only because they're losing customers who are able to find reasonable alternatives. Qwest is only able to provide decent speeds if you live in certain areas, and I have not yet lived in a place where they are a viable alternative. Digis seems to be a growing competitor, and they give me some hope that competition will continue to improve in the future, but their customers must have line-of-sight to their antennas, which our previous apartment did not have. Utopia seems to be great in those cities that participate, but I have never had the fortune to live in one of them. The iProvo system is a disaster; one reason of many is that they required all participating ISPs to provide voice and IPTV service, thus barring decent ISPs from joining. My point is that many places are worse than Utah, but even here I've generally only had one or two choices at any given residence. Some people in class argued that if you want to change ISPs, you can move to a different home; I thank them for so perfectly illustrating the high cost of switching providers.

I was surprised at how many members of the class were supportive of common carrier policies (for example, requiring Comcast to allow other ISPs to run signals over its wires). This would certainly increase competition (and I believe it currently adds competition within the DSL market), but I expected those with libertarian leanings to object. Perhaps they were persuaded by my comments about how cable and phone companies get plenty of taxpayer aid due to subsidies and municipal franchise agreements, but it's more likely that they just see it as the lesser of two evils (the other being increased net neutrality regulation across the board). Although the class disagreed on whether the current level of competition was healthy, I think that most of us feel that if competition were healthy, that transparency measures would probably be adequate to "solve" the net neutrality problem (at least for now).

Given that we don't have healthy competition (in my opinion) and that there are not any common carrier policies on the table, I am tentatively in favor of network neutrality regulations. Granted, regulation always comes with side effects, but I don't think the market is healthy enough to solve the problem on its own, though I might be willing to entertain an approach of increasing transparency for now and readdressing the issue in another two years.

With respect to policy, I would prefer an approach that allows ISPs to perform protocol-agnostic shaping but not to discriminate against competitors or to double dip (charge other ISPs' customers even though their own customers are already paying). If I were shopping for an ISP in a healthy market, I think it would be reasonable for them to throttle traffic based on the time of day and the overall bandwidth usage of the customer. Perhaps there could be tiers: for $10 a month, your traffic is always low priority, for $20 a month you're low priority if you've used more than 2 GB, and for $30 you're high priority. Or something like that. I can imagine a number of healthy protocol-agnostic models. The only model I would hate is the cell phone model (once you use more than 2 GB, we charge you $10 per MB).

To summarize my opinion, I think that transparency alone would be adequate given a healthy market, but given the lack of competition, it might also be necessary to enact legislation to require ISPs to only discriminate based on the usage of the customer, in a manner irrespective of protocols and remote addresses.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with a lot of what you've said here. For me, common carrier is the #1 issue to push. But since that won't happen any time soon, I like your protocol-agnostic shaping suggestion.