The FCC issued a new ruling today, affirming network neutrality. It was was not as complete a decision as preferred by proponents of neutrality, but it seems that it will be a very important ruling. It allows differentiation in wireless networks, stating that these are different entities that require different rules. Some on the panel think that this did not go far enough, that an Internet connection is an Internet connection (and I agree on that), but I agree that it is better to affirm neutrality on wired networks than to not resolve the issue for another two years, as Commissioner Michael Copps stated. The rules state that carriers cannot block legal traffic, and they cannot “unreasonably discriminate” against types of traffic. Those “weasel words” leave enough ambiguity to cause some problems, I’m sure, and will keep the lawyers busy, but the principle is important to codify.
Carriers and their supporters claim these rules will not allow for return on investment and will stifle innovation. I think though, that consumers should be able to pay for the bandwidth to their local networks based on the traffic needs, and not suffer discrimination based on what bits they send or receive. I would be more sympathetic to the carriers if I didn’t think that they were trying to protect a dying business model for delivery of subscription TV. The success of Netflix has the cable providers in particular looking for ways to sustain their historic revenue models. However, locking consumers into a limited set of choices is not it. If we each had many ISP’s that we could contract with for broadband access, I’d be more sympathetic to the statements of the free market advocates who state that the marketplace will take care of abuses. The problem is that most people only have one choice for wireline broadband, and that’s their cable company. In urban and suburban areas, you may have two or three, but that’s not broadly the case. I’m fortunate that I have access to both cable (Time Warner) and telco (U-verse). Eighteen months ago I moved from Time Warner to U-verse for higher bandwidth and have not looked back. Now, what I want is symmetric bandwidth, with higher upload speeds, though I am much happier with U-verse speed 18Mb down/1.5Mb up than the offerings from Time Warner.
The bottom line? Today is a big day, and I think that the Internet innovation machine will continue to churn and create new and exciting options, thanks to today’s FCC ruling.