"The Internet" vs. "Internet Access"

Cross-posted at IP Democracy:

I didn't get a chance to see today's Senate Commerce Committee hearings, but Cynthia's discussion of them pointed to an area of apparent but unnecessary confusion in the debate--the question of whether the Internet has ever been regulated.  

I think the confusion can be cleared up if we distinguish "the Internet" from "access to the Internet." While the former has been pretty much free of regulation, the latter was subject to common-carrier regulation with regard to dial-up access, which was the dominant form of access until recently, when broadband passed the 50% mark in its share of Internet customers.  It seems pretty clear to me that common-carrier regulations embody the basic principles of network neutrality.

So, if our focus is on the "Internet access" market (as opposed to the many different markets that comprise "the Internet"), it seems accurate to say that "Internet access" was originally (and is still partially) subject to common-carrier regulation and that in recent years we've been in a transition to an unregulated duopoly market structure (if you're about to argue broadband access isn't a duopoly, I'd refer you to this recent post by Cynthia and some of the material it references).  

It's fair to say that so far there are few examples of actual blocking or discrimination.  But some situations have arisen (some apparently intentional, others apparently unintentional) that provide some sense of where we might be headed if we move forward with an unregulated duopoly "Internet access" market (see here, here, here, here and here.

Also suggesting that a move away from "neutrality" is in the works are statements made by RBOC and cable executives (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here).  

Virtually all of these statements suggest that pipe-owners are planning to deliver what some have called a "two-tiered Internet," but might be better described as a multi-tiered "IP network" that, among other things, would provide access to what we know today as the "neutral Internet."

In my view, the logic of a vertically integrated duopoly access market suggests that, over time, this "neutral Internet" will be allocated ever smaller percentages of total network bandwidth, since it provides network operators the least amount of flexibility in terms of leveraging their market power to maximize revenues and margins--it pretty much puts them in the bit-transport business, selling end-users Internet access at various levels of speed. And, as I noted here, it's been argued that this will be the case even if net neutrality rules currently under consideration are passed by Congress.

While there are clearly arguments on both sides of the net neutrality debate, I have to admit I find it a bit depressing to see how little impact serious discussion seems to have on decisions made by Congress when powerful interests are willing to spend lots of money to make sure their agenda is met (and not just on this issue).  It seems yet another example of "one person, one vote" being squeezed out by "one dollar, one vote," and reminds me of that saying "There are two things you'll never wish to watch: the making of sausage and the making of legislation." 

Actually, as distasteful as it might be, I'd prefer it if us citizens out here in the hinterland did get to watch the process a little more (no, make that a lot more) closely.  Maybe we need a whole bunch of new C-SPAN channels that broadcast meetings with lobbyists and actual drafting of legislative language (and how about Rules Committee meetings while we're at it).  I think that'd be a lot more interesting and useful than listening to floor speeches.  Think of it as a new form of reality show..."Political Survivor," or maybe "The Reelection Fear Factor."

Tags: net neutrality (all tags)


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